Circuit Court: School did not discriminate against father on gender grounds by enrolling child without his consent
The Circuit Court has overturned a decision by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) to award €3,000 to a father who claimed to have suffered gender discrimination by his daughter’s secondary school. The child had been enrolled in the school by the mother without the consent of the father and the WRC determined that this amounted to gender discrimination.
About this case:
- Citation: IECC 1
- Court:Circuit Court
- Judge:Judge John O'Connor
Delivering judgment in the case, His Honour Judge John O’Connor held that the evidence did not support a finding that the father was discriminated against by the school. Further, it was held that the guardianship rights of the father did not automatically entitle him to force a school to refuse this child’s admission.
The child had been enrolled in the secondary school for the year 2020/2021 by her mother. The father and mother were a divorced couple and the mother had recently moved accommodation with her daughter to a local area. The enrolment application was made in January 2020 and was accepted in May 2020.
The father did not consent to the enrolment and notified this fact to the school. The father took the view that the consent of both parents was required for the enrolment application to be accepted by the school.
When the enrolment was confirmed, the father made a complaint to the WRC claiming that the school had discriminated against him on the grounds of gender. The Adjudication Officer determined that the father had made out a prima facie case that he had been discriminated against contrary to sections 3 and 7 of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 which had not been rebutted by the school.
The father was awarded €3,000 by the WRC, although it was noted that the school had kept the father fully appraised of his daughter’s wellbeing, that he had been notified about parent-teacher meetings and had access to the school’s management information system.
The school appealed the decision to the Circuit Court. It was submitted that the enrolment of the child was in full compliance with the school’s policy and that it had a duty to enrol the child once the application was made. It was also noted that the previous divorce order of the court did not make any reference to the child’s education.
It was submitted that the Adjudication Officer misinterpreted the law by holding that the enrolment issue had to be decided by the courts and that enrolment should therefore have been delayed. It was submitted that the father was not a pupil of the school, and therefore could not legitimately avail of the service of the school within the meaning of the Equal Status Acts. Accordingly, it was argued that the father could not bring a claim of discrimination against the school.
The school relied on cases such as The Board of Management of a Secondary School v A Father, Southwestern Circuit (Record No. 2019/00333) and A Complainant v The Board of Management of a Secondary School (DEC-S2017-030) where claims of discrimination against fathers were rejected.
Judge O’Connor began by outlining the relevant provisions of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015. Section 3 of the Acts included gender as a discriminatory ground, while section 7 provided that education establishments would not discriminate in relation to, inter alia, the admission of students to an establishment, a student’s access to any course or facility or the expulsion of a student.
Further, the court considered the case of Stokes v. Christian Brothers High School Clonmel and Anor  IESC 13, where it was emphasised that the proper question had to be asked in cases of discrimination, which was a matter of law. Additionally, it was noted that a person was only required to show that an alleged discriminatory practice bore significantly more heavily on members of one sex over the other (Nathan v. Bailey Gibson  2 IR 162).
Judge O’Connor summarised the principles of discrimination claims, holding that it was for the complainant to make out a prima facie case of prohibited conduct before a respondent was required to rebut any presumption of discrimination. The best interests of the child were the primary consideration and other competing interests were of secondary importance.
The court also noted that a child’s right to education was “a very basic and important human right” and that all parents had a common obligation to promote the education and training of their children. The court stated that family disputes concerning the rights of parents should not be used to usurp the fundamental rights of a child.
Further, it was stated that the WRC “should not be used by a parent or guardian in upholding their gender rights as a substitute for a court in dealing with what are essentially family law disputes regarding the education of a child”.
Court held that “equality legislation needs to be interpreted first as equality legislation,” which must be balanced in conjunction with all relevant legislation and constitutional rights. As such, it was important to be cognisant of a school’s duty to enrol a child in accordance with its enrolment policy under the Education Acts.
Applying the law to the facts of the case, the court was satisfied dot the father had not demonstrated a prima facie case that he was treated less favourably on account of his gender. On the contrary, it was held that the school was “exemplary” in its communications with the father.
Since the father had not made out his case of discrimination on a prima facie basis, the appeal was allowed and the decision of the WRC was overturned.
The Board of Management of a School v. A Father  IECC 1