High heels at work: does the law need reformed?

This blog post is by Heather Morgan and Max Barnish. It is a guest blog post, but read on to discover the  School of Law connection…

In April 2017, a petition to make it illegal for employers to force women to wear high heels in line with corporate dress codes was rejected by the UK government. It was deemed that existing equality legislation – the Equality Act 2010 – is sufficient to protect women from the widespread discrimination they face in the workplace in respect of their footwear choices, or lack thereof.

This week, a fresh call was issued following the most comprehensive review of evidence of the health risks and social benefits surrounding high heel wearing, which was published in the journal BMC Public Health. The study was led by Dr Max Barnish and found that there is a clear link between high heels and poor health outcomes, and therefore no person should be compelled to wear them in the workplace or other settings.

The publication of this research sparked mass press coverage across the UK and internationally. Heated public TV and radio debates followed, including appearances of the University of Aberdeen researchers who undertook the review. Dr Heather Morgan, a health services researcher and Aberdeen law graduate who co-authored the study, said: “women’s health should not be exploited in favour of commercial branding. This is not just an issue of equality and discrimination, but of health and safety at work.

Dr Barnish continued: “Our review demonstrates a need for this issue to be taken more seriously by either the UK or its devolved governments. We know that many employers continue to compel women to adhere to strict dress codes, which often include a requirement to wear heels. Existing legislation might imply that this is illegal, but the law is not frequently or easily enforced. Meanwhile, heels continue to cause wearers pain, long-term physical damage and injury, which could easily be prevented.

The researchers have made it clear that they are not trying to tell people what they can and can’t wear: choice is key, particularly because the review also identified numerous social benefits that wearing heels might afford women, which come about through heteronormative standards and expectations. Those are for another discussion; however, from a legal perspective, when health is put at risk, which the evidence here shows in no uncertain terms, employers have a duty of care towards their employees.

Dr Morgan added: “It is ludicrous that employers can and do enforce terms of a contract of employment that might put the health and safety of their staff at risk. Our work has now shown that this is the case. The law in this area as it stands remains difficult to enforce because it relies on proving discrimination on the grounds of sex (i.e. if females are required to wear heels, proving that male colleagues are not). While that is important and should remain an option for employees, we believe that a concrete rule banning enforced high heel wear at work (or in other settings) must be enacted – on public health grounds.

56102234 - businesswoman taking off high heels shoes after work at home
Image credit – University of Aberdeen

The Malta Marriage Equality Bill: a further comment

This blog post is by Justin Borg-Barthet.

My earlier comment on the Maltese Marriage Equality Bill has prompted some discussion, including in an article in Sunday’s Times of Malta. In that article, Silvan Agius – a Maltese champion of LGBTIQ rights – responded on behalf of the Government of Malta.

Let me begin by identifying the common ground between that response and my own legal assessment. Mr Agius and I agree that a dynamic reading of fundamental rights law requires the elimination of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. This includes the right to marriage.

Equally, we agree that same-sex relationships should not, at law, be treated as asexual relations any more than should different sex relationships.

Contrary to his reading of my own argument, we also agree that foreign models should not be adopted blindly. Comparative law requires a critical approach to both/all relevant legal systems.

Our disagreement concerns the methods employed to achieve equality. This is a border skirmish between friends (literally and ideologically), not a fundamental dispute concerning the dignity and liberty of individuals.

‘Government could not blindly reproduce [Scots] law’

I have no brief to defend or promote Scots law. Indeed, Maltese law is, in some respects, more progressive. By way of example, civil unions are gender neutral in Malta, whereas civil partnerships are open only to same-sex couples in Scotland.

Mr Agius was setting up a straw man when he stated that Malta could not ‘blindly reproduce’ Scots law’. Nowhere was this suggested. Maltese and Scots law are substantively different and require different solutions. Legal transposition should not, in principle, constitute ‘blind reproduction’.

Furthermore, the stated reasons for rejecting the Scots law model are far from persuasive. Mr Agius’ explanation rests on two limbs, both of which are unsound.

The first limb of his argument is that ‘in Scotland, England and Wales, gay marriage was regulated by distinct laws.’ This is neither here nor there, and indeed is not entirely accurate. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 amends the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 with a view to opening the earlier Act up to same-sex couples. The appearance of a lack of consolidation is simply a function of different legal traditions.

Furthermore, nowhere do I argue that “non-consummation should not be a ground to annul a same sex marriage”. If I had, I would indeed have been arguing “that same sex marriages are not on par with heterosexual marriages”. Mine was a criticism concerning a lack of definition. Indeed, the position in Scotland – contrary to Mr Agius’ contention – is that the notion of consummation simply is not addressed in its own right for couples of either gender-mix. The problem does not arise in the same manner.

Again, I do not suggest that this should be the position in Malta. I am simply arguing that the Maltese position is unsound. Consummation has a specific meaning which should either be changed for all couples or adapted for same-sex couples.

I was also somewhat surprised to read the Maltese government’s claim that ‘Scots law was consulted extensively’. Extensive consultation should include deep engagement with reports and consultations conducted abroad, not mere skimming of the surface. Had the Maltese government indeed consulted Scots law extensively, they would have been aware that sex was not ignored at all when marriage equality was adopted.

Far from homosexual sex being taboo, the subject was debated in some depth with a view to identifying adequate solutions. It was agreed that superimposing established opposite-sex norms concerning impotency simply could not work. This required careful consideration of sexual interactions, as opposed to sweeping this fundamental dimension of married life under the carpet, as has been done in Malta.

The decision was made to defer discussion concerning impotency for different sex couples, but to adopt a more liberal approach for same-sex couples. This was not because the legislator shied away from the reality of homosexual relationships, but because the legal ramifications had been carefully considered.

Now, Mr Agius is right to note that this has been subject to some criticism in Scotland, but it does not follow that the Maltese solution is adequate. Indeed, by retaining impotence as a ground of nullity unchanged for same-sex couples, Malta is simply choosing discrimination in practice for the sake of political sloganeering.

Abdication of Parliamentary responsibility: “The law courts will have to take into account the new realities and adapt the law to them”

The Maltese Government claims that the decision not to distinguish between the organic interactions of same-sex and different sex couples stems from a desire to preserve the unity of marriage. Yet the government response to my earlier comment contradicts this claim.

Mr Agius states that the courts will determine the meaning of impotence and consummation, in the same manner as they have done for different sex couples. If the intention is for marriage to be the same, then how will the courts reconcile the meaning of established terms with different organic realities of different sex couples? This is either a backdoor change to established definitions for different sex couples – which does not appear to be the intention of Parliament – or, it is an admission that different and same-sex couples simply cannot be regulated in the same manner.

Secondly, Mr Agius’ argument is a quite extraordinary admission that Parliament intends to leave a lacuna in the law which it expects the courts to address. To put it mildly, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to the separation of powers. It is for Parliament, not the courts, to deal with the finer detail of family law policy.

But Mr Agius’ suggestion also misses a fundamental point about judicial legal development.   To the extent that courts did in fact elaborate the meaning of impotence and consummation for opposite sex couples, they had a wealth of comparable international experience on which to rely. Marriage law in Malta is, after all, derived from ecclesiastical sources. In contrast, same-sex relationships will not benefit from much international experience.

Furthermore, where there is international precedent, this is not necessarily relevant because regulation of same-sex relationships, novel as it is, differs from one jurisdiction to another. Indeed, Malta’s major parent legal systems, namely English common law, French civil law and Italian law, now regulate marriage quite differently to the contemporary Maltese approach. International precedent is simply unavailable, and Maltese same-sex couples will therefore have to rely on courts which lack the critical mass to develop solutions as predictably as one might expect.

Concluding remarks

Effectively, then my earlier suggestion that same-sex couples will be subjected to a lack of legal certainty, and in some cases to costly (both financially and emotionally) litigation remains sound. Indeed, it is implicitly confirmed by the Maltese Government that this transfer of the burden of regulation is intended by the legislator.

I remain of the view, therefore, that the Maltese legislator should engage more carefully with ongoing legal developments and consult in a greater spirit of openness. This will enable the better fulfilment of the declared aims of the legislation. It may also enable the legislator to address other unintended consequences, such as the discriminatory treatment of conversion of civil unions and marriages (while civil unions may become marriages, existing marriages cannot be converted to civil unions – a somewhat regressive approach – but more on that later…).

Malta Sunday Times

When non-discrimination is discriminatory: A Comment on the Maltese Marriage Equality Bill

This blog post is by Justin Borg-Barthet. It was originally posted on ‘Manuel Delia’s notes’, a Maltese political blog. It is re-posted here (with minor amendments) with kind permission.

Through the Marriage Equality Bill, Malta joins a small group of European nations which have both met and exceeded the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of the elimination of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. It is particularly noteworthy that this development has met with the approval of all parties in the Maltese Parliament. This has not always been the case in other jurisdictions.

Malta also differs from its peers, however, in that it appears that political expediency has resulted in laws which have not been as carefully crafted as one might have hoped. Scots law on marriage equality, for example, developed following extensive public debate, with the benefit of significant academic input, and through careful legal drafting. The law is therefore clear, and same-sex couples are as aware of their rights and obligations as their different sex counterparts.

While Maltese law is driven by a dynamic, narrow human rights agenda, this appears to have occurred to the detriment of careful consideration of family law matters. Like the Civil Unions Act 2014 before it, the Marriage Equality Bill superimposes a heterosexual model on same-sex relationships. This is intended to achieve equality of rights, but in some cases results in a poor fit, to the detriment of same-sex couples. I will highlight two examples below, namely impotence and consummation.

Impotence

The lack of consideration for differences between heterosexual and same-sex models is most evident in relation to matters pertaining to sexual relations. In particular, the Maltese Marriage Act 1975 provides that a marriage shall be void ‘if either of the parties is impotent, whether such impotence is absolute or relative’. There is no distinction in the Maltese Bill between same-sex couples and couples of different genders.

This is to be contrasted with Scots Law, as well as the law of England and Wales. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014, for example, provides as follows:

For the avoidance of doubt, the rule of law which provides for a marriage to be voidable by reason of impotence has effect only in relation to a marriage between persons of different sexes.

The exclusion of impotence as a ground for nullity in same-sex relations in Scotland is motivated by the different realities of same-sex and different sex couples. The relevance of the stipulation that impotence is a ground for nullity is plain for spouses of different genders. After all, the provision was designed with them in mind.

For same-sex partners, however, it is not necessarily the case that impotence as traditionally understood is relevant to both, or indeed either, partner. Suffice it to note that intercourse between two women differs from that between a man and a woman. Similarly, intercourse between two men does not necessarily require both men’s bodies to function identically. Maltese law does not account for this.

Consummation

Equally problematic for same-sex couples is the regulation of consummation of marriage in Malta. This too differs from Scots law. In Malta, the absence of consummation within three months may result in annulment. Article 19A(1) of the Maltese Marriage Act 1975 provides as follows:

A valid marriage may be annulled at the request of one of the spouses on the grounds that the other party has refused to consummate the same.

It is especially unclear what constitutes consummation between two women, or indeed whether it is possible in the sense the law intended. Nor is it entirely clear what is meant by consummation for male couples. One might assume that penetration by one spouse of the other should constitute consummation. But it is equally arguable that one spouse could seek to annul the marriage where penetration occurred by one party but was ‘refused’ by the other.

All that is certain is that same-sex couples cannot be certain of the validity of their marriages.

Concluding remarks

The likely legal fallout could have been avoided given the successful foreign legislative models and external expertise available to the Maltese legislator. It is regrettable that it is precisely those whose rights were to be furthered who will suffer from a lack of foresight.

The resulting legal uncertainty will, of course, have no effect whatsoever on different sex couples. The law is clear in their regard. Contrary to arguments raised in the Maltese Parliament, to distinguish between different and same-sex couples is the very antithesis of discrimination. Maltese law discriminates by failing to account for differences. Same-sex couples in Malta are rendered vulnerable to a lack of foreseeability as to the meaning of the law.

It is the same-sex couples purportedly protected by identical treatment who are in fact vulnerable to a lack of certainty. It is same-sex couples who are vulnerable to spousal abuse arising from a lack of clarity in a marital contract in which the parties’ rights and duties are undefined. And it is same-sex couples who will have to suffer the emotional and financial burden of litigating points of law which the legislator appears not to have considered.