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Lesbians win equality victory in Europe

The campaign for gays to enjoy the equal employment rights passed a legal milestone yesterday when the test case brought by railway clerk Lisa Grant won backing in a critical preliminary opinion at the European Court of Justice. Patricia Wynn Davies, Legal Affairs Editor, reports.

Lisa Grant and her lover Jill Percey clasped hands at a news conference as they celebrated an historic turning point in the cause of equal rights between the sexes, after a ruling that is likely to have far-reaching implications for Europe's 35 million lesbians and gay men and their employers.

Michael Elmer, advocate-general at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, had just delivered his long-awaited opinion in the case brought by Ms Grant, 30, against her employers, South West Trains. It had refused to allow her partner Ms Percey, 38, a nurse at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester, the same travel concessions - worth about pounds 1,000 a year - as other workers' spouses or opposite-sex cohabitees.

The company argued throughout the two-year legal battle that the discrimination was permissible because it was based not on sex, but on sexual orientation.

That approach has been emphatically rejected by Mr Elmer, who agreed with Lisa Grant's counsel,Cherie Booth QC,that discrimination on grounds of sex or orientation amounted to the same thing.

"We are ecstatic," Ms Percey said. "Lisa's private life does not affect the way she works and we felt it should not affect her pay." Mr Elmer's opinion is not binding on the full court of 15 judges who will make a final ruling in about six months' time, but it will be unusual if they do not follow it. Ms Grant's solicitor, Ruth Harvey of the London law firm Sheridans, said employers would have to scrutinise policies on pay- related perks and benefits for unmarried heterosexual couples. Company pension schemes, in particular, could face significant upheaval where they extend to opposite-sex cohabitees.

Martin Hopkins, head of employment at the Birmingham firm Eversheds, suggested that some firms might choose to "retrench in the opposite direction" by restricting benefits and concessions to married partners. But a combination of the likely final upshot in the Grant case and another ruling by the Luxembourg court last year is likely to open the way for gays and lesbians to be guaranteed equal treatment in promotion and opportunities for training, and to protection from dismissal because of their sexual orientation.