Lesbian wins right to appeal over abuse from pupils

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The Independent Online

A teacher who was abused by her pupils for being a lesbian won the right to sue for damages yesterday after taking her case to the House of Lords.

In a judgment that has implications for homosexuals across Britain, Shirley Pearce, 53, was allowed to challenge a decision by the Court of Appeal last July that said she was not protected by the Sex Discrimination Act because the abuse she suffered was due to her sexual orientation, not her gender.

In a written decision published yesterday, Lords Steyn, Hutton and Millett said Miss Pearce could appeal against the court's ruling. The case, which has been closely watched by gay rights groups, will continue later this year.

Miss Pearce, a science teacher, retired from Mayfield Secondary School in Portsmouth in 1996 because of ill health. She had joined the school in 1975 but claimed that, from the early 1990s, she was subjected to persistent abuse from pupils "both in words and behaviour".

She was called names by pupils and, in one incident, had a tin of cat food emptied into her pocket. She took her school governors to an employment tribunal, arguing the school had failed to take proper steps to protect her. The tribunal found in her favour, ruling she had suffered sex discrimination.

An Employment Appeal Tribunal reversed that decision and said Miss Pearce was not entitled to damages. It said she had been discriminated against because of her sexual orientation and not because she was a woman.

Miss Pearce initially challenged that judgment in the Court of Appeal. She then took her case to the House of Lords after the Appeal Court backed the appeal tribunal.

In the Court of Appeal's judgment, Lady Justice Hale, one of the country's most senior female judges, said there was "no legislation expressly prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation".

She said Ms Pearce had not established her ill-treatment was based on gender, since "there was no evidence the pupils would have treated a male homosexual teacher any more favourably than her".

Nor, she said, was there any evidence "that the school's response to a case of similar abuse of a homosexual male teacher would have been any different".