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How is our work influencing life in Northern Ireland and delivering equality? Learn more about our policy, legal and research work.
 
 

Protecting rights after Brexit

What you need to know

Making a complaint

 

Protection of Equality and Human Rights After Brexit


What is the UK Government’s commitment to equality and human rights after Brexit?

Prior to the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) in January 2020, the UK Government committed to ensuring that certain equality and human rights in Northern Ireland would continue to be upheld after Brexit. This commitment was set out in the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU.

 

•    Commitment not to reduce certain equality and human rights after Brexit

 

In particular, under Article 2 of the Protocol, the UK Government committed to ensuring that the protections currently in place in Northern Ireland for the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions set out in the chapter of the same name in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement will not be not reduced as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

This means, for example, that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive cannot act in a way that would reduce certain equality and human rights in Northern Ireland, as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

 

 

•    Commitment to keep pace with certain equality rights after Brexit

The UK Government has also committed to ensuring that some of Northern Ireland’s equality laws will keep pace with any future changes to certain EU equality laws.

This means that if the EU amends or updates the EU equality laws set out in Annex 1 to the Protocol, after 1 January 2021, Northern Ireland equality laws will keep pace with those changes.  This is designed to ensure that certain Northern Ireland equality laws will not fall behind minimum EU standards of protection in anti-discrimination.

What EU equality laws are in Annex 1 to the Protocol?

All of the EU equality Directives listed in Annex 1 to the Protocol have been brought into force in Northern Ireland law and are designed to promote equal treatment and tackle discrimination on the following protected grounds:
 
  • Gender
  • Racial or Ethnic Origin
  • Religion or belief
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual Orientation


Specifically, the six EU equality Directives in Annex 1 are:

 

 

Why was this commitment made?

This is an important commitment as there are concerns that equality and human rights may be reduced when the UK is no longer part of the EU. EU law has played an important role in improving equality protections in Northern Ireland.

The commitment is also a recognition of the importance and centrality of rights and equality protections in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and that this Agreement has underpinned the peace process here.
 

Who is covered by this commitment?

This commitment applies to Northern Ireland. Everyone who is subject to Northern Ireland law is covered by this commitment. This is the case regardless of whether the law is passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly or by Westminster.
 

What rights are covered by the commitment?

The commitment applies to the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions set out in the chapter of the same name in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. These provisions include, but may not be limited to:
 
  • The right of free political thought;
  • The right to freedom and expression of religion;
  • The right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations;
  • The right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means;
  • The right to freely choose one’s place of residence;
  • The right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity;
  • The right to freedom from sectarian harassment;
  • The right of women to full and equal political participation;
  • The right of victims to remember as well as to contribute to a changed society;
  • Respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity; and
  • The need to ensure that symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.
 

What would amount to a breach of the commitment?

In order to show that there has been a breach of the commitment and a reduction of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity provisions, there must be evidence that:
 
  • the right, safeguard or equality of opportunity provision or protection is covered by the relevant chapter of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement;
  • it was protected under Northern Ireland law on, or before, the end of the Brexit transition period, namely 31 December 2020; and
  • the reduction in rights occurred as a result of Brexit.

Some of the rights in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, set out above, are underpinned by protections against discrimination in EU law.

These EU equality laws, set out in Annex 1 to the Protocol, provide minimum standards of protection against discrimination. These minimum standards are already set out in Northern Ireland’s equality laws; for example, through certain changes to Northern Ireland’s equality laws on the grounds of sex, race, age, disability and fair employment. In some instances, Northern Ireland equality laws have exceeded these minimum EU standards.
In addition to these EU equality laws, set out in Annex 1, there are other EU laws that are relevant to the rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity provisions in the chapter of the same name in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, as set out above.

These include, but are not limited to, EU Directives such as the Parental Leave Directive (pdf), Victims’ Directive (pdf) and Pregnant Workers’ Directive (pdf), as well as specific measures aimed at protecting the rights of disabled people.

A failure by the UK Government to ensure that Northern Ireland equality laws keep pace with any changes that the EU makes after 1 January 2021 to update or replace certain EU equality laws, as set out in Annex 1 to the Protocol, would also be a breach of the commitment.
 

Is this commitment binding?

This commitment is binding on the UK Government and Parliament, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly as a matter of international law.

All the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement, including the UK Government’s commitments on equality and human rights under Article 2 of the Protocol, are now contained in UK law.
 

What is the role of the Equality Commission?

To ensure that the UK Government meets this commitment, a ‘dedicated mechanism’ has been created comprising of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

From 1 January 2021 the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission have new duties and powers to monitor, supervise, advise, enforce, and report on this commitment.

The Commissions will also work with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to provide oversight of equalities and rights that have an Island of Ireland dimension.

Further, the Commissions and the Joint Committee of NI Human Rights Commission and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission can directly raise matters of relevance to how the commitment is being implemented with the Specialised Committee on the Protocol. This Specialised Committee is made up of representatives from both the UK and EU and it oversees the implementation and application of the Protocol.
 

What are the new powers and duties of the Equality Commission?

Both the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission, from 1 January 2021, have new duties and powers to monitor, supervise, advise, enforce, and report on this commitment. 

These duties and powers are set out in the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998

In particular, the Commissions’ new powers and duties include:

 
  • Monitoring how the commitment is implemented;
  • Reporting on its implementation to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and The Executive Office;
  • Advising the Secretary of State and the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly of legislative and other measures that must be taken to implement the commitment;
  • Advising the Northern Ireland Assembly (or a committee of the Assembly) whether a Bill is compatible with the commitment;
  • Promoting understanding and awareness of how important the commitment is;
  • Powers to bring, or intervene in, legal proceedings in respect of an alleged breach (or potential future breach) of the commitment; and
  • Powers to assist individuals in relevant legal proceedings.

Further to these duties and powers, the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission will provide regular reports to the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive and identify any changes to the rights and equalities landscape.

The Commissions can exercise these powers and fulfil these duties jointly or separately.
 

Can individuals bring complaints if there is a breach of the commitment?

Yes, from 1 January 2021 individuals can bring legal action, by way of judicial review, to challenge the compatibility of the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly actions or legislation with this commitment.

The Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission have the power to:
 
  • provide advice and assistance, and support individuals bring legal complaints, where they believe that this commitment has been breached, where appropriate; and
  • bring legal challenges or intervene in legal cases, where they believe that this commitment has been breached, where appropriate.

As set out above, in order to show that a reduction of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity has taken place, it will be necessary to show that:
 
  • the right, safeguard or equality of opportunity provision or protection is covered by the relevant chapter of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement;
  • it was protected under Northern Ireland law on, or before, the end of the Brexit transition period, namely 31 December 2020; and
  • the reduction in rights occurred as a result of Brexit.

The Commissions can bring legal action separately or jointly. See how to make a complaint
 

What are the North/South oversight arrangements?

The Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission are working with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) to oversee and report on rights and equalities issues falling within the scope of the commitment that have an island of Ireland dimension.
 
All three Commissions can report separately to the UK Government and Ireland Government on any issues with an island of Ireland rights equalities and dimension.
 
 

Further information

 


Contact us
For general information about the Equality Commission’s 'Dedicated Mechanism Unit'  email: DMU@equalityni.org or Tel: 028 90500600. For advice enquiries on making a complaint, speak to one of our Dedicated Mechanism Unit advisors, Tel: 028 90500600, Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm.


NI Human Rights Commission
For further information on NI Human Rights Commission and its role as part of the dedicated mechanism, you can also contact the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, email: info@nihrc.org or Tel: 028 90243987, website: www.nihrc.org

Independent Monitoring Authority
Further information on the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements and its work to protect on citizens’ rights protections under the Withdrawal Agreement, after 1 January 2021, is available on their website: www.ima-citizensrights.org.uk.




 
Delivering equality
 

Making a complaint - equality and human rights after Brexit


The UK Government committed to ensuring that certain equality and human rights in Northern Ireland would continue to be upheld after Brexit.  

In particular, under Article 2 of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol (‘the Protocol’) to the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU in October 2019, the UK Government committed to ensuring that the protections currently in place in Northern Ireland for the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions set out in the chapter of the same name in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement are not reduced as the UK leaves the EU.

The UK Government has also committed to ensuring that some of Northern Ireland’s equality laws will keep pace with any future changes to certain EU equality laws.

Can I challenge a breach of the commitment under Article 2?

Yes. Individuals have the right to bring legal action before the courts if they consider that there has been a breach of the UK Government’s commitment under Article 2 of the Protocol.

For example, if you consider that the NI Assembly, the NI Executive, or a public body has acted in a way that is incompatible with the UK Government’s commitment under Article 2, you can challenge those actions in domestic courts. This involves taking a form of legal action called ‘Judicial Review’.
 

Who is covered by this commitment?

This commitment applies to Northern Ireland.

Therefore everyone who is subject to Northern Ireland law is covered by this commitment. This is the case regardless of whether the law is passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly or by Westminster.

 
 

How do I show that the Article 2 commitment has been breached?

In order to show that there has been a breach of the commitment and a reduction of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity provisions, there must be evidence that:
 
  • the right, safeguard or equality of opportunity provision or protection is covered by the chapter of the same name in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement;
  • it was protected under Northern Ireland law on, or before, the end of the Brexit transition period, namely 31 December 2020; and
  • the reduction in rights occurred as a result of Brexit.

Only the Courts decide whether a breach of Article 2 has occurred, and the courts are separate to, and independent from, the Equality Commission.

Further information on the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions are set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 
 

Can the Equality Commission assist me in bringing/taking legal action?

Yes. From 1 January 2021, the Equality Commission, and the NI Human Rights Commission, have new powers, including to enforce the UK Government’s commitment under Article 2 of the Protocol.

From 1 January 2021, individuals can bring legal action, by way of judicial review, to challenge the compatibility of the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly actions or legislation with this commitment.

The Equality Commission, from 1 January 2021, has the power to:

 
  • provide advice and assistance, and support individuals bring legal complaints, where they believe that this commitment has been breached, where appropriate; and
  • to bring legal challenges or intervene in legal cases, where they believe that this commitment has been breached, where appropriate.

Therefore, the Equality Commission may, from 1 January 2021, be able to provide the following assistance:
 
1.    Provide you with legal representation in legal proceedings.
2.    ‘Intervene’ or get involved in legal proceedings that you are pursuing.

The Equality Commission also has the power to takes cases in its own name.

In order to ensure that the UK Government meets its commitment under Article 2 of the Protocol, from 1 January 2021, the UK Government created a ‘dedicated mechanism’, comprising of the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission. The Commissions, from that date, have new duties and powers, to monitor, supervise, advise, enforce, and report on this commitment.

As the dedicated mechanism, the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission can exercise their powers and fulfil their duties jointly or separately.

This means that the NI Human Rights Commission can also assist and support individuals take legal action, and intervene or bring proceedings in its own name, in relation to a breach of the UK Government’s commitment under Article 2 of the Protocol.
 

Are there time limits for making a complaint?

Yes. There are strict time limits for lodging judicial review proceedings with a court.

A judicial review case for an alleged breach of Article 2 must be brought before the Court within 3 months of the decision or action being complained of taking place.

Please note that contacting the Equality Commission or making an application for assistance to the Equality Commission for advice or assistance does not constitute issuing legal proceedings.
 

How do I find out more about making a complaint?

You can contact the Equality Commission for further information and guidance on the UK Government’s commitment under Article 2 of the Protocol, as well as on the process for applying to the Equality Commission for assistance if you consider that there has been a breach of this commitment.
 
 


Contact us
You or your representative can email the Equality Commission’s Dedicated Mechanism Unit at DMU@equalityni.org. A member of the Commission’s Dedicated Mechanism Unit enquiries team will then get in contact with you.

If you would prefer to speak to someone, you can contact the Equality Commission on 028 90 500600 (Monday - Friday, 10am - 4pm) and ask to be put speak to Dedicated Mechanism Unit’s Enquiries Team.

If you require an interpreter, please let us know.


You can also contact the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for information and guidance, or to make a complaint about a breach of the Article 2 commitment (after 1 January 2021). You may can also contact the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for information and guidance. You can do so by email: 
info@nihrc.org or by telephone on 02890 243987, website: www.nihrc.org


 
Protecting rights after Brexit
 
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