Employment and Immigration Law Update - Marriage discrimination or dismissal for ‘some other substantial reason’?


25 June 2020

In this case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled on whether a dismissal following a marriage breakdown amounted to unlawful marriage discrimination under the Equality Act 2020, or whether it was fair for ‘some other substantial reason’ (SOSR).

Gould v St John’s Downshire Hill, UKEAT/0002/20

Facts

The claimant was a church minister who was dismissed following the breakdown of his marriage and brought claims for unfair dismissal and direct marriage discrimination.  
His claim for marriage discrimination was rejected by an employment tribunal, which accepted the employer’s evidence that the reason for his dismissal was not the breakdown of his marriage, but instead a loss of trust and confidence in the claimant.

The marital breakdown was part of the background to the dismissal, which was played out in a very public way with members of the church congregation. The church trustees had other concerns about the claimant’s behaviour over a number of years, including governance issues and conflicts of interest relating to property transactions.  As a result, a number of the congregation stopped attending the church and the leadership team resigned. Mediation was attempted but was ultimately unsuccessful, and the claimant agreed to take a six month sabbatical. Eventually the church trustees concluded that there had been an irretrievable breakdown in relations and dismissed the claimant.  

The tribunal found the dismissal fair for some other substantial reason.

EAT decision

The EAT has rejected the claimant’s appeal, upholding the tribunal’s finding that his dismissal was fair and did not amount to marriage discrimination. There was no evidence that a moral belief that a minister whose marriage breaks down cannot continue in post was a factor in his dismissal. The employment tribunal had been entitled to conclude on the facts of the case that it was not a case of marriage discrimination.

Consequences

Claims for marriage discrimination are relatively rare in practice, and as this case shows it is often difficult for a claimant to establish that the treatment complained of is due to the marriage itself (or its breakdown) rather than just a background fact to the dismissal.

This case also illustrates how problematic it can be for employers to handle a relationship breakdown that has an impact on an employee’s ability to perform his or her duties, particularly if both parties work for the same employer. In this case, the employer had clearly gone to some lengths to resolve the situation by attempting mediation and agreeing a sabbatical with the claimant, before ultimately concluding that dismissal was the only option left available.

This article is from the June 2020 issue of Employment and Immigration Law Update, our monthly newsletter for HR professionals. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website. For further information please contact Liz Stevens or another member of Birketts' Employment Law Team.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at June 2020.