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Uniform policy banning ‘cornrows’ amounted to race discrimination.

30th June, 2011

A recent discrimination case involving a school uniform policy could have important implications for employers with employees who are required to wear uniforms. In the case of G v Head Teacher and Governors of St Gregory’s Catholic Science College [2011] EWHC 1452 (Admin), the High Court held that a policy preventing a black pupil from having his hair in ‘cornrows’ was unlawful and amounted to indirect race discrimination. This case highlights the significance for employers of ensuring that any current policies dealing with uniforms and dress codes are not discriminatory and are up-to-date in accordance with the Equality Act 2010 (“the EqA 2010”).

At the time that the pupil joined the school, the uniform policy did not explicitly ban cornrows for boys, although the ban on cornrows was stated at a reception meeting in September 2009, which the pupil did not attend. The first the pupil knew of the ban was when he arrived at the school on his first day and was told that he was not allowed to attend unless his cornrows were removed. The school’s rationale behind its uniform policy was its concern to keep any gang culture out of the school, to avoid accompanying ethnic tensions and violence and to make the school a safe environment where pupils were valued equally.

As the pupil was unwilling to comply with the school’s policy, he was subsequently unable to take up his place at the school and brought a claim that the school had indirectly discriminated against him on the grounds of his race and sex. The school later added a specific ban on braids for boys to the school’s uniform policy. In order to succeed with his claim for indirect discrimination, the pupil had to demonstrate that the school’s policy had resulted in discrimination within the meaning of the EqA 2010 and that the prohibition on cornrows caused a particular disadvantage to him based on protected characteristics i.e. his race and sex.

The pupil’s argument was based on the fact that he was a member of a group that did suffer particular disadvantage if forbidden to wear cornrows. It was submitted in evidence that some individuals of African-Caribbean ethnicity regard the cutting of their hair to be wrong and need it to be kept in cornrows, for reasons based on their culture and ethnicity. The Court was satisfied that a group existed who could be particularly disadvantaged by a refusal to permit them to wear their hair in cornrows. Having suffered a very traumatic experience in being turned away from school on his first day due to the policy, the Court decided that the pupil had suffered a particular disadvantage.

Having found that the school had indirectly discriminated against the pupil, the Court had to consider justification. The Court held that it was clear that the school had not complied with the applicable public sector equality duty (which is now contained in section 149 of the EqA 2010). Although the Court believed the aim of the policy to be legitimate, it was considered that the indirect discrimination which the absolute prohibition on cornrows produced was not justified. Therefore, the school was found to have discriminated against the pupil on the grounds of race, although the sex discrimination claim was unsuccessful.

While not involving an employment relationship, this particular case carries significance for employers who have employees who are required to wear a uniform. Employers must take care to ensure that any provisions as to uniform/dress code set out in policy documents or applied in practice are not discriminatory on the basis of any of the protected characteristics and grounds contained within the EqA 2010. Therefore, it is important to ensure that any existing policies are regularly reviewed and are correctly implemented.

For a free review of your current uniform or dress code policy or if you are interested in introducing a uniform or dress code policy for your business, please contact Helen Watson on 01244 405565 or e-mail her here.

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