The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has held in Parris v Trinity College Dublin that it was not discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or age for a pension fund to refuse a retrospective claim for a survivor’s pension to the surviving spouse or civil partner. This was because the requirement to marry or enter into a civil partnership before the age of 60 applied equally to heterosexual and homosexual couples.
Dr Parris, a dual Irish and UK national, joined the pension scheme at Trinity College Dublin when he became a lecturer in 1972. Under the terms of the scheme, members were entitled, on retirement, to a pension equal to two-thirds of their final salary. If they died after retirement, the surviving spouse, or (from 2011 in Ireland) the civil partner, was entitled to a two-thirds pension for life, but only if the member married or entered into the civil partnership before the age of 60. Mr Parris registered a civil partnership in the UK when he was 63.
On 17 September 2010 Mr Parris asked for his civil partner to be allowed to receive a survivor’s pension, on his death. This was refused, as was his appeal against the decision. Shortly after his retirement on 31 December 2010, the Civil Partnership Act entered into force in Ireland on 1 January 2011 and his civil partnership was recognised in Irish law shortly afterwards.
Dr Parris brought proceedings before the Irish Equality Tribunal arguing that he had been directly or indirectly discriminated against by reason of his age and/or sexual orientation, given that he could not comply with the rule under Irish law before he turned 60.
Decision of lower courts
The tribunal rejected his claim and he appealed to the Labour Court (Ireland), which stayed the proceedings and asked the CJEU to decide whether the decision to refuse his civil partner a survivor’s pension was discrimination contrary to the European Directive establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.
Decsion of CJEU
In terms of his claim of direct discrimination, the CJEU held that as the entitlement to a survivor’s pension applied equally to homosexual and heterosexual employees, the claim of direct discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation could not succeed.
As for his claim of indirect discrimination, the CJEU pointed out that, as marital status and benefits fall within the competence of member states, Ireland was not required under EU law to give retrospective effect to the Civil Partnership Act. Nor did it have to lay down transitional measures for same-sex couples in circumstances where the scheme member had already reached the age of 60 when the act came into force. That meant his claim of indirect discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation could not succeed either.
The Court also rejected his claims of discrimination on the basis of age because it fell within Article 6(2) of the Directive which allows ‘the fixing … of ages for admission or entitlement to retirement … benefits’ within the meaning of that provision”.
Finally, the Court rejected his claim creating discrimination “as a result of the combined effect of sexual orientation and age”, holding that there was “no new category of discrimination resulting from the combination of more than one of those grounds” where discrimination taken in isolation had not been established.
This judgment further highlights two trends that had already been prevalent in previous case-law: a) that the Court is reluctant to intervene in situations which touch on matters that fall to be regulated exclusively at Member State level, especially when such matters involve morality judgements for which there is great diversity of views among the Member States and b) that the Court ignores the reality of multiple discrimination.