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Our legal work in action

The Commission's work

The Commission is the national expert in equalities and human rights law and we use our legal powers to protect people from discrimination, upholding values of fairness, dignity and respect – improving the lives of millions of people.

Over the last eight years we have assisted or intervened in more than 300 cases of national importance.

Find out more about our legal work.

Our pre-enforcement action has seen us help over 1,000 individuals and organisations. This type of early intervention work means that we can protect people and their rights without resorting to court cases.

Find out more about our pre-enforcement work.

Since 2011, we have held the Government and other public bodies to account in more than 70 cases.

Our role as a strategic regulator means that we focus our resources on cases that have a much wider impact in promoting human rights and building a fairer society.

Read our litigation and enforcement policy.

Since April 2013, we have been successful in two-thirds of cases we have taken (Successful, or successful in part, in 45 out of 67 cases which is 67%). Due to our strategic approach we frequently take on cases that explore the boundaries of equality and human rights law or deal with novel issues where outcomes are uncertain. Even where we do not achieve our objective in a case, the result can be extremely useful. It might clarify the law for others or highlight gaps in protection that we might then address through other means.

Find out more about our enforcement powers.

The rights we have protected – 10 cases that changed Britain

Since 2007 we have assisted or intervened in significant legal cases to protect a range of groups.

Here are 10 of the most important cases we’ve been involved in:

Under the Benefits Cap the Government set a limit on the amount of payments that can be made to a range of people. Unpaid carers for disabled family members were initially subjected to this Cap. This reduction in income would jeopardize the ability of those affected to continue to care for their relatives, and the loss of a trusted carer would be devastating for a disabled person. We intervened by submitting to the High Court that, as a result, carers’ human rights had been contravened. The Court upheld our submission and we await the Government’s response to this ruling.

We intervened in this case to help determine the level of responsibility of local authorities to Traveller children. The High Court confirmed that Worcestershire County Council should give proper consideration to supporting Child J even when he is outside the authority’s area. This important ruling means that J, and all Traveller children, can continue with their traditional way of life without having to go without essential services such as healthcare and education.

Hazelmary and Peter Bull refused to let civil partners Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall stay in a double room at their Cornish bed and breakfast, on the basis of their deeply held Christian beliefs. The County Court judged this to be discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The Commission stepped in to support Mr Preddy and Mr Hall when the Bulls appealed to the Supreme Court, to ensure the correct application of the Equality Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The appeal was successfully defended and the Court ruled that the Bulls’ religious beliefs did not entitle them to discriminate against civil partners. It held that the right of citizens to practise their religion can be limited where necessary to protect the rights of others. This was an important test case for the Commission in confirming the protection against sexual orientation discrimination in the provision of services.

Private Philip Hewett was killed on patrol in Iraq when his Snatch Land Rover was struck by an improvised explosive device. His mother, Susan Smith, claims that his death was the consequence of the failure of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to provide suitably armoured equipment for soldiers on active service in Iraq. This would be a breach of their obligation to safeguard Private Hewett’s right to life, enshrined in Article 2 ECHR. The Commission intervened at the Supreme Court to determine whether human rights protections extended to soldiers based outside of the UK. The Court ruled that British soldiers killed while serving in Iraq were still under UK jurisdiction and so were entitled to human rights protection that is reasonable and does not interfere with the demands of active service.

David Allen had banked at the Church Street branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) in Sheffield since he was at primary school. However, when he started to use a wheelchair, he found he was unable to get into the branch and had to conduct his banking in the street. Alongside the Sheffield Law Centre, the Commission took on the case and used the Disability Discrimination Act to prove Mr Allen that had been discriminated against. The judge ruled in David’s favour and ordered RBS to install ramps, as well as providing David with some compensation. RBS appealed this all the way to the Supreme Court but were unsuccessful. This is an important case as it provides helpful guidance to courts faced with claims from other disabled people seeking to enforce their rights.

Ms Eweida was employed as a British Airways (BA) check-in clerk and, as a devout Christian, decided to start wearing a cross on a chain around her neck in May 2006. This was in contravention of BA’s uniform policy and Ms Eweida was suspended from work when she refused to stop wearing the chain at work for religious reasons. However, in February 2007 BA changed its policy to allow the display of religious and charity symbols and staff were allowed to wear items such as the cross and the Star of David. Ms Eweida returned to work but BA refused to compensate her for lost earnings during the period of suspension. When this case made it to the European Court of Human Rights, the Commission intervened asking for clarification around how much the right to religious freedom was protected in domestic law. The European Court ruled that Ms Eweida’s human rights had been breached.

In the first case, Mr Homer had worked for the Police National Legal Database as a legal advisor, and was not required to have a law degree when he got the job. However, in 2005, a new grading structure was introduced and to reach the top grade (at which Mr Homer had previously been operating) this qualification was required. Mr Homer objected to studying for four years towards this when he was due to retire in three years at the age of 65. The Commission intervened in this case and the Supreme Court decided that he had been indirectly discriminated against, referring the case to an employment tribunal and asking that they reconsider the justification given by West Yorkshire Police for this new requirement.

In the second case, Mr Seldon was forced to retire as partner from the legal firm Clarkson, Wright and Jakes, as he had reached their mandatory retirement age of 65. The Commission supported this case and, although the Supreme Court did accept that Mr Seldon’s firm did have some valid reasons for the mandatory retirement age for partners, they asked an employment tribunal to consider whether forcing a partner to retire after their 65th birthday was appropriate and necessary.

These two cases were the first judgements handed down by the Supreme Court on age discrimination, and the Commission’s involvement played an important role in reminding employers of their responsibilities and making the law clearer.

Sharon Coleman claimed she had been discriminated against and harassed by her employer in her role as legal secretary at Attridge Law LLP because of her son's disability. The Commission supported Ms Coleman's case which reached the European Court of Justice. The Court decided that the provisions against direct discrimination and harassment protected non-disabled people who had experienced discrimination or harassment because of their association with a disabled person. This judgment had a significant impact in extending legal protection for the six million carers in the UK, 60 per cent of whom are women, and it also helped to improve and extend domestic equality law in the form of the Equality Act 2010.

While in hospital Mrs Tracey had a Do Not Attempt Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) notice placed on her notes without her knowledge. The failure to consult Mrs Tracey had breached her human rights. The outcome means that health workers should involve patients in any decision about use of DNACPR notices. There should be convincing reasons if this does not happen and causing distress is not a sufficient reason. The rights of patients to be consulted should be set out in a clear and accessible policy. This should be directed at patients and copies automatically made available to them and their families. 

Last updated: 29 Nov 2019