Don’t take It out on the wife

Posted: 16th January 2012

Under Section 3 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA) workers are protected from less favourable treatment on the ground that they are married or in a civil partnership. Under the Equality Act 2010, which has now superseded the SDA, a married person has ‘the protected characteristic of marriage’.
In Dunn v Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled that Section 3 of the SDA does not only cover a person’s marital status in the abstract sense but should also be construed to cover the circumstance in which an employer discriminates against an employee because she is married to a particular man.
Mrs Dunn claimed that she had suffered less favourable treatment because she was the wife of Mr Dunn, who also worked for the ICCM. Her husband was involved in a dispute with the Chief Executive, which Mrs Dunn believed was a factor in the way she was treated by her employer. The Employment Tribunal found that she had not been discriminated against because of her marital status and dismissed the claim.
The EAT disagreed, however. In its view, Constable of the Bedfordshire Constabulary v Graham is authority for the proposition that any less favourable treatment that is marriage-specific is unlawful. Mrs Dunn therefore had the right to pursue her claim that the ICCM had treated her as it did on account of her relationship to Mr Dunn – i.e. as an ‘adjunct to his family’.
Employers are reminded that the Equality Act has broadened the definition of direct discrimination so that it occurs where the reason for a person being treated less favourably than another is one of the protected characteristics covered by the Act, which include marriage and civil partnership. The new definition covers instances where someone does not have the protected characteristic but has suffered less favourable treatment because of their association with someone who does.