A central problem with the Equality Act 2010 - the main anti-discrimination law in the UK - is that it is simply not properly enforced. This observation was made last week by Douglas Johnson of Sheffield Citizens Advice and Law Centre to a House of Lords committee examining the impact of the Act on people with disabilities. As he put it,
"The fundamental point is that the legislation itself is fine. We could do a lot with it, but [...] enforcement is critical."
Johnson, who is a specialist discrimination adviser and last year's social welfare Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year, was giving oral evidence on behalf of the Law Centres Network. To him, the Act was failing at the practical hurdle and this was damaging its effectiveness.
One reason identified by Johnson is indecision on the part of government and relevant authorities, for example in publishing codes of practice. He said
"There is a failure of leadership [...] among those organisations that really should be driving [standards and enforcement of the Equality Act]."
Another reason for the Equality Act being underused was the lack of accessible discrimination advice:
"There is practically no funding now for advice on discrimination law. People are all at sea with this [...] We are not necessarily talking about legal aid for big cases. It is about people getting basic information and advice on whether or not they have a case for discrimination."
The lack of early legal advice meant that claimants could go ahead with a claim that had no merit; miss out on vital guidance on settling their case without going to court; or burden court resources by not presenting their arguments as required.
A third obstacle was the deterrent to both clients and lawyers in the financial risk associated with making discrimination claims. In fear of committing to pay higher tribunal fees, clients were not bringing claims that were otherwise with merit. To add to this, Johnson reflected:
“It is simply not cost-effective for most firms of solicitors to take that risk.”
The chilling effect on clients was leading employers to disregard complaints until a claim has been served, and to be more bullish in handling out-of-court settlements.
The committee will continue to hear expert evidence and is due to publish its report by the end of March 2016.
Several Law Centres have submitted their own evidence as well: