Lesbians' hearing will set a legal precedent: Unlawful dismissal case brought under Sex Discrimination Act
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Wednesday 09 June 1993
The tribunal will set a legal precedent, and is the first homosexual rights case to use the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act as the core of an argument for being unfairly sacked.
Maria O'Rourke, 28, and Simone Wallace, 20, were jointly dismissed by BG Turnkey Services last November. The women have been openly living as lesbians for two and a half years and were recognised as partners at their work. Ms O'Rourke was a quality inspection leader and Ms Wallace a production-line team leader.
The Irish-owned packing company accused Ms O'Rourke of a bad attitude to her job, with Ms Wallace accused of passing on confidential company information. Both claim they were given no warning about dismissal or about their conduct.
The first hurdle was passed in Edinburgh on Monday, when the two women were told at an initial hearing that they could pursue their claims to a full industrial tribunal under the Act.
Although the tribunal will still have to decide on the legal merits of the case, the fact that it is progressing at all under the 1975 Act is being welcomed as a crucial step forward for homosexual rights.
Michael Cashman, an actor and co-founder of the homosexual rights organisation, Stonewall, said no previous case such as this had been heard under British or European law. He said homosexuals could now use the law to defeat discrimination.
At the initial hearing, the solicitor for the two women, Stewart Watt, argued that although section 1 of the 1975 Act made no specific reference to sexuality or sexual orientation, previous cases had shown that discrimination could be proven because a respondent would have acted differently had the claimant been a man.
Kenneth Hogg, representing BG Turnkey, denied the firm had discriminated against the couple for being lesbian. He said the 1975 Act made no mention of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, which he said made up the entire case for the women.
If gender was at issue it would be more accurate to ask whether their treatment would have been any different had they both been men in a homosexual relationship, he said.
The hearing ruled that the arguments forwarded by Mr Watt were valid because other cases had found factors relating to a woman's sex, such as pregnancy, were relevant to a sex discrimination claim. The tribunal is expected to sit late this summer.
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