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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.
 
 

Gender

Law reform
Law reform

What you need to know

 
Gender law reform

Action is required to address the significant gaps in protection against sex discrimination and harassment; harmonise, simplify and clarify the law; and strengthen the Commission’s enforcement powers, as well as the available remedies.

The Equality Commission has identified a number of significant gaps and weaknesses in sex equality law that urgently need addressed. In Northern Ireland men and women have less protection against sex discrimination and harassment than in other parts of the UK. In particular, the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 in Great Britain in October 2010 strengthened protection against sex discrimination across a range of areas, including areas highlighted in a number of our recommendations.

More recently, the gap in legal protections between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been criticised by the CEDAW Committee, which expressed concern that women in Northern Ireland did not have the same remit of equality protections as compared to their counterparts in other parts of the UK.

Our recommendations

Pursuant to its duty under the sex equality legislation to keep the sex equality legislation under review and to make recommendations for change, the Commission has identified a number of significant gaps and weaknesses in sex equality law that urgently need addressed. Some key recommended changes include, for example, prohibiting unlawful sex discrimination or harassment by:
 
  • private clubs/ associations, including golf clubs and political parties
  • public bodies when carrying out their public functions
  • schools as regards their treatment of trans pupils

Strengthening sex equality legislation

The Commission considers that there is a robust case for strengthening the sex equality legislation. In particular, the recommended changes:

  • will strengthen protection for men and women against sex discrimination and harassment and ensure that sex equality legislation keeps pace with legislative developments that improved protection in other parts of the UK
  • help address key gender inequalities, including those experienced by men and women
  • harmonise, simplify and clarify the sex equality legislation and thereby make it easier to understand
  • ensure unjustifiable inconsistencies are removed; ensure greater consistency with existing levels of protection on other equality grounds
  • provide legal certainty in areas where the scope of the legislation is unclear;
  • are in keeping with the current overarching aims and objectives of the Executive’s Gender Equality Strategy 2006-2016; where there is a commitment to “improving protection against discrimination by improving legislative measures and keeping their effectiveness under review”
  • ensure that the sex equality legislation is in line with the UK Government’s international obligations under CEDAW and the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee
 

Forms of discrimination

We recommend that there is a timetabled commitment to reform the sex equality and/or equal pay legislation aligned to our proposals summarised below:

  • *prohibit unlawful discrimination and harassment by public bodies on the grounds of sex in the exercise of their public functions. We have made it clear that this is a priority area for reform
  • permit hypothetical comparators in equal pay cases and introduce mandatory equal pay audits
  • introduce new protection against intersectional multiple discrimination
  • provide greater protection for employees against harassment on grounds of sex by a third party such as a customer or client
  • introduce changes designed to clarify and strengthen direct discrimination; including:
 
- clarification that direct discrimination on grounds of pregnancy is also direct discrimination on grounds of sex; and
- * strengthen protection against direct sex discrimination by allowing sex discrimination claims to be brought based on a hypothetical comparator, where there is evidence of direct sex discrimination in relation to contractual pay
 
  • * strengthen protection against discrimination or harassment by private clubs/ associations on the grounds of sex, including pregnancy and maternity and gender reassignment
  • * new protection for employees against pay secrecy clauses, aimed at prohibiting employers from preventing or restricting their employees from having discussions about their pay, where such discussions are aimed at establishing whether or not there is pay discrimination
  • amend the definition of ‘gender reassignment’ so as to remove the requirement that a person undergoing gender reassignment must be under medical supervision*; and give consideration to prohibiting discrimination on the wider ground of ‘gender identity’, rather than the narrower ground of ‘gender reassignment’
  • * new protection for trans people in the field of education in schools and by qualifications bodies
  • * new protection for trans people against indirect discrimination across all areas

* proposals which have been already implemented in Great Britain (or will be implemented in the near future)
 

Enforcement and remedies

  • * require tribunals to order a respondent who has been found by the tribunal to have committed an equal pay breach to carry out an equal pay audit
  • grant a power to tribunals to make wide recommendations that benefit the whole workforce
  • strengthen Commission enforcement powers across the sex equality legislation
  • * introduce Regulations requiring large private and voluntary sector employers to publish information about the differences of pay between their male and female employees

* proposals which have been already implemented in Great Britain (or will be implemented in the near future)
 
 

Going forward
To advance gender equality, we recommend that the Executive, Departments and other key stakeholders act to address the above priorities, including via the Programme for Government and Budget, and the Gender Equality Strategy.
 
Download our recommendations in pdf format:
 


Fawcett Society sex discrimination law review
A review of sex discrimination law published on 23 January 2018 by the Fawcett Society highlights that the law protecting women from discrimination in Northern Ireland is ‘significantly behind the rest of the UK’, and endorses many of the Equality Commission’s recommendations for reform of the sex discrimination laws here.  The review is available on the Fawcett Society's website



 

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< Addressing inequality
 

 

 
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