Judge O'Connor has delivered a Circuit Court judgment overturning a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) decision to award €3,000 to a father who claimed he was discriminated against by his daughter's school on grounds of gender in circumstances where the child had been enrolled in the school by the child's mother without his consent.
In overturning the WRC decision, Judge O'Connor held that the evidence submitted did not support such a finding and that the guardianship rights of the father did not automatically entitle him to force the school to refuse the child's enrolment.
The child had been enrolled for the 2020/2021 academic year by her mother which was opposed by the father. The couple were divorced and the mother and daughter had recently moved to the area where the school was located. The father notified the school that he did not consent to the enrolment as he was of the opinion that the consent of both parties was required in order for the application to be acceptable by the school.
Following the acceptance of the enrolment by the school, the father complained to the WRC that he had been discriminated against on the grounds of gender. The WRC Adjudication Officer was of the opinion that the father had put forward a prima facie case of discrimination contrary to sections 3 and 7 of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 which the school had not rebutted. Despite the fact that the school had kept the father apprised of his daughter's wellbeing and notified him of any parent-teacher meetings, etc, the Adjudication Officer awarded the father €3,000.
This was appealed to the Circuit Court by the school on the basis that it had a duty to process the child's application once submitted in line with its own policies and further on the basis that the divorce order from the Court made no reference to the child's education. It was submitted that the Adjudication Officer misinterpreted the law by holding that the enrolment issue had to be decided by the courts and that enrolment should therefore have been delayed. It was further submitted that the father was not a pupil of the school, and therefore could not legitimately avail of the service of the school within the meaning of the Equal Status Acts. Accordingly, it was argued that the father could not bring a claim of discrimination against the school.
The school relied on cases such as The Board of Management of a Secondary School v A Father, Southwestern Circuit (Record No. 2019/00333) and A Complainant v The Board of Management of a Secondary School (DEC-S2017-030) where claims of discrimination against fathers were rejected.
The Court considered the case of Stokes v Christian Brothers High School Clonmel and Anor  IESC 13, where it was emphasised that the proper question had to be asked in cases of discrimination, which was a matter of law. Additionally, it was noted that a person was only required to show that an alleged discriminatory practice bore significantly more heavily on members of one sex over the other (Nathan v Bailey Gibson  2 IR 162).
Judge O'Connor stated that the best interests of the child were the primary consideration and other competing interests such as disputes between the parents were of secondary importance. He stated that the right to education was a basic human right and that the parents shared a common obligation to support the education of their children and that family disputes should not interfere with the child's fundamental rights. He went on to add that the WRC 'should not be used by a parent or guardian in upholding their gender rights as a substitute for a court in dealing with what are essentially family law disputes regarding the education of a child'.
He added that 'equality legislation needs to be interpreted first as equality legislation' and that this must be weighed against all other constitutional and statutory rights, such as the school's duty to enrol a child in accordance with its enrolment policy under the Education Acts.
As the father had not made out a prima facie case in the eyes of the Court, the appeal was allowed and the WRC decision was overturned.
Did You Know?
Many people are unaware of the fact that the WRC may hear equality cases, not just workplace issues. This also extends to landlord and tenant issues where equality or discrimination is a factor.