Under the Equality Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a worker because of their religious beliefs. In Page v Lord Chancellor, however, the Court of Appeal held that it was not discriminatory for the Lord Chancellor to remove Mr Page from the magistracy, given his refusal to honour his undertaking to act without bias in his capacity as a magistrate.
Mr Page, a lay magistrate in Kent who sat as a member of the family panel, refused in July 2014 to sign an order for the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple. As a Christian, he said it was in the best interests of the child to be cared for by a man and a woman. After a formal reprimand by the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor in December that year, he underwent remedial training and resumed sitting as a magistrate.
Although magistrates had been explicitly advised to contact the judicial press office before talking to the media, Mr Page gave interviews with two newspapers in January 2015 in which he repeated his views about same-sex adoption without letting the press office know. Despite being reminded about the advice, he proceeded to give an interview to the BBC in March 2015, again without notifying the press office, which led to further disciplinary proceedings and ultimately his removal from the magistracy with effect from March 2016.
He claimed unlawful discrimination and/or harassment in relation to religion or belief under the Equality Act. He also brought a claim for victimisation on the basis that the second round of disciplinary action was brought because he had complained that the first round was discriminatory.
Tribunal and EAT decisions
Dismissing his claims of discrimination, the tribunal concluded that the decision to remove Mr Page from the magistracy was based on misconduct following his public declaration of bias towards same-sex adopters. Not only was his behaviour likely to bring the judiciary into disrepute, but he had also subsequently shown a complete lack of insight into his conduct.
Mr Page was allowed to appeal to the EAT, but only on the claim of victimisation as opposed to the discrimination claims. The EAT dismissed the appeal.
Decision of Court of Appeal
Agreeing with the tribunal and the EAT, the Court of Appeal held that Mr Page was not removed as a magistrate for complaining about his treatment. Rather, it was because he had shown himself to be incapable of honouring his undertaking to act as a magistrate in a way that was free from bias. Indeed, he had declared publicly that, when dealing with cases involving adoption by same-sex couples, he would not be bound by the law or the evidence before him, but by his own preconceived beliefs about such adoptions.
In a scathing analysis, the Court held that Mr Page’s inability to see any harm in relying on “evidence” acquired outside the court hearing showed “a remarkable lack of judgment”, as the disciplinary panel had also pointed out.
The Court made clear that, as Parliament had decided that a child could be adopted by a couple or by a single person, regardless of sexual orientation and without hierarchy, it was not open to individual judges to superimpose their own beliefs, however sincerely held. Mr Page’s argument that he had been “singled out because of his Christian belief” demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the responsibilities of a judge as a public servant and the fact that Mr Page continued to hold them was further confirmation that his dismissal from the magistracy was both lawful and inevitable.
This is an illustration of a common position in which a claimant with a protected characteristic cannot substantiate the link between their protected characteristic and the less favourable/unwanted treatment from their employer. In this case, the tribunal/courts found that Mr Page was not disciplined for the beliefs he held relevant to his protected characteristic but rather it was the manner in which he expressed those beliefs. The decision appears to be a continuation of another recently determined claim by the Court of Appeal in Page v NHS Trust Development Authority in which it held that the freedom to express religious or any other beliefs was not unlimited. There were circumstances in which it was right to expect those who worked for an institution, especially if they held a high-profile position, to accept some limitations on how they expressed in public their beliefs on matters of particular sensitivity.