Legal system failing women, says Fawcett Society

By agency reporter
January 24, 2018

A ground-breaking report released by the Fawcett Society concludes that our legal system is failing women and needs fundamental reform. The report, which is the conclusion of the Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review (SDLR) Panel, also found that violence against women and girls is ‘endemic’ in the UK.

The SDLR Panel was made up of a team of legal experts and chaired by Dame Laura Cox, DBE, a retired High Court Justice. It was set up to review the UK’s sex discrimination laws in response to the risk that long-established rights could be eroded or weakened as a result of Brexit and leaving the EU single market. It also considered the effectiveness of current laws and how best to balance the rights of the individual with the responsibilities of the organisation.

The report, which is the first of its kind, calls for a number of specific changes to the legal system. These include strengthening the laws on sexual harassment at work to protect women from harassment by third parties, making ‘up-skirting’ an offence, making misogyny a hate crime, making any breach of a domestic abuse order a criminal offence and extending protection from pregnancy discrimination to six months after maternity leave ends.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society said, “What we see is a deeply misogynistic culture where harassment and abuse are endemic and normalised coupled with a legal system that lets women down because in many cases it doesn’t provide access to justice.”

Dame Laura Cox, Chair of the Review Panel added, “The evidence we received, of increasing levels of violence, abuse and harassment against women, was deeply disturbing. A lack of access to justice for such women has wide-ranging implications not only for the women themselves, but also for society as a whole and for public confidence in our justice system.”

Key findings

Violence and harassment

  • Half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work
  • 64 per cent of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places
  • One in five women aged over 16 have experienced sexual assault
  • In some sexual offences cases a victim’s sexual history evidence is being inappropriately used in court

Evidence of complacency and a blame culture against women: 38 per cent of all men and 34 per cent of all women said that if a woman goes out at night, wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is the victim of a sexual assault she is totally or partly to blame

Key recommendations

Harassment at work:

  • Strengthen the law on sexual harassment at work – protect women from harassment from ‘third parties’ who may be customers, service users or contractors
  • Place more responsibility onto the employer to be proactive – introduce a new duty on large organisations to prevent discrimination and harassment in their workplaces
  • Domestic violence:
  • Extend the definition of coercive control to include after a couple have separated
  • Make any breach of a domestic abuse order a criminal offence
  • Sexual offences
  • Review the law on the admissibility of previous sexual history evidence
  • Online technology and street harassment
  • Remove the automatic ‘on line geo-location’ setting which puts women at risk
  • Make ‘up-skirting’ an offence
  • Make misogyny a hate crime
  • Change the definition of ‘revenge porn’; the current requirement to prove ‘an intention to cause distress’ when private sexual photographs have been disclosed is inadequate

Turning to employment Dame Laura Cox, Chair of the Review Panel said, “There has been much progress for women at work since the arrival of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. But, in some areas, undue legal complexity and delay have hampered that progress. Over time the rate of change has been far too slow, or has stalled, or has even gone into reverse. There is therefore a powerful case for change, to ensure that our sex equality laws are fulfilling their purpose, that employers do more to prevent sex discrimination in the first place, and that working women have access to justice to enforce their rights where they need to.”

Sam Smethers added, “The vast majority of pay discrimination claims settle before they get to the Tribunal. When they do go to the Tribunal pay discrimination claims can drag on for many years. Women have literally died waiting. This is fundamentally wrong and why we need to apply a time limit to these cases.”

“We must also strengthen the law to protect women from harassment from third parties, whether it be a contractor, a customer or service user.

“But the time has now come for a greater responsibility and accountability to be placed onto organisations to prevent harassment and discrimination in the first place. If we believe that gender equality is good for business, then we must also believe that discrimination and harassment are bad for business. The chances are this will be happening to some extent in most workplaces so let’s move towards proactive action and require employers to do something about it.”

Key findings 

Employment, pay, leave and access to justice

  • Progress on closing the pay gap has stalled, a lack of transparency prevents women from challenging unequal pay and legal cases can take many years to resolve
  • 54,000 pregnant women and working mothers are pressured to leave their job early each year but just onr per cent of cases go to tribunal. Women are not protected after they return to work from maternity leave
  • Statutory maternity and paternity pay is amongst the lowest in Europe
  • Shared Parental Leave is not enough to enable many fathers to take time off work to care
  • If someone is discriminated against because of more than one aspect of their identity they are not protected by the law
  • The number of legal centres around the country has halved in ten years

Key recommendations

Employment, pay and leave

  • Introduce an indicative timetable to keep all Equal pay cases on track and stop unacceptable delays
  • Extend gender pay gap reporting to employers with 50 employees or more and include data on other protected characteristics such as race, disability and LGBT status (with due consideration to privacy)
  • Extend protection from pregnancy discrimination to the 6 months after maternity leave ends and increase statutory pay rates
  • Fundamentally reform the parental leave system to provide for a longer, higher paid period of leave for fathers.
  • Legislate to address multiple discrimination, following the example of Canada or Germany

Northern Ireland

The Panel found that Sex Equality legislation in Northern Ireland is significantly behind the rest of the UK with no Single Equality Act in place, leaving them more directly reliant on EU law. Women’s access to abortion remains severely limited and they face life imprisonment if they break the law.

Sam Smethers added, “Women in Northern Ireland have been badly let down by a political system which has sacrificed their fundamental rights. There should be no difference in basic legal protections and they should also have access to abortion on the same terms as women in the rest of the UK.

* Read the Sex Discrimination Law Review here

* The Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

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