Final farewell for the Equality Act questionnaire procedure?

6th April 2014 was the date set for the abolition of the statutory questionnaire procedure. Just as a reminder, the government decided to remove the statutory equality questionnaire process as part of its ‘red tape’ consultation; that was despite a whopping 83% of respondents to the consultation being opposed to it.

So what was the questionnaire process and was it even important?
Well, the process has been around since the first equality legislation with the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, with the most recent being embodied in the Equality Act 2010. It was a process that allowed claimants at an early stage to ask questions about their potential claim to the alleged discriminator. In the right hands it could be a very powerful tool – enabling the claimant to gain significant information at an early stage, often before proceedings were even started. The questionnaire process recognised the difficulties faced by claimants and sought to offer some way in addressing the imbalance by enabling them to secure information that potentially would not be secured through any other route. It also helped to determine whether they had a case or not; early information in many cases encouraged settlement before tribunal or court proceedings were issued. Since the government introduced fees for tribunal claims, the questionnaire procedure had taken on increased significance for claimants.

If a respondent failed to reply to the questionnaire or provided evasive or equivocal replies, the courts and tribunals had the power to draw adverse inferences, which again was a really important tool for the claimant to use.

So what now?
It is clear that the removal of the ‘statutory’ process has not removed the claimant’s ability to ask questions of the potential respondents. Indeed, ACAS has now introduced guidance on how to do this, which appears more detailed than the original statutory guidance. It can be found here (PDF)

It is hard to see how this 26 page booklet helps in any way to reduce the bureaucracy of what was a widely understood and well established procedure like the statutory questionnaire. The 6 step process introduced by this guidance in fact bears a strikingly similar resemblance to the previous process and there is even a template to fill in. To top it all, the guidance emphasises that whilst it is a voluntary rather than statutory process the courts and tribunals may still draw adverse inferences from a refusal to respond or evasive answers –

‘A responder is not under a legal obligation to answer questions. However a tribunal or county/sheriff court may look at whether a responder has answered questions and how they have answered them as a contributory factor in making their overall decision on the questioner’s discrimination claim. A Tribunal or court may also order a responder to provide such information as part of legal proceedings in any event. These are issues a responder would need to weigh up when considering if to reply and what to say.’

So things don’t appear to be that different after all….in fact, having ACAS guidelines is likely to encourage people that would never have used the questionnaire process previously, to do so now. It is likely to be quoted in increasing numbers around our courts and tribunals.

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Disability in Schools

Disability in Schools March 2013

Disability in Schools March 2013 Flyer, click for PDF.

On the 1st September 2012 a little heralded change under the Equality Act 2010 took place – all schools became subject to the duty to provide auxillary aids and services to disabled pupils. The EHRC has provided technical guidance on this

Although in practice many disabled children will have Special Educational Needs (SEN) identified and as a consequence may be receiving support, this will not be true of all children. Just because a child has SEN or has a statement does not take away a school’s duty to make reasonable adjustments for them. In practice many children who have a statement of SEN will receive all the support they need through the framework and there will be nothing more that the school has to do. However some disabled pupils may not have SEN and some who have will need additional reasonable adjustments.

The guidance from the EHRC sets out factors to take into account in considering what is a reasonable adjustment:

  • the extent to which support will be provided to the disabled pupil under the SEN framework
  • the resources of the school and the availability of financial or other assistance
  • the financial and other costs of making the adjustment
  • the extent to which taking any particular step would be effective in overcoming the substantial disadvantage suffered by a disabled pupil
  • the practicability of the adjustment
  • the effect of the disability on the individual
  • health and safety requirements
  • the need to maintain academic, musical, sporting and other standards
  • the interests of other pupils and prospective pupils

Some useful case studies are referred to:
A disabled pupil with ME finds moving around a large three storey secondary school very tiring and despite the school adjusting the timetable and loaction of classes to minimise the amount she has to move she is still too exhausted to complete the school day. The school then makes further adjustments of having a ‘buddy’ to carry her books for her, a dictaphone to record those lessons that she misses and a policy that she will not be penalised for arriving at lessons late. These adjustments enable her to attend more lessons and to be less disadvantaged when she does miss lessons.

 

An infant school disabled pupil with ADHD receives some individual teaching assistant support through the SEN framework. He is diagnosed with severe asthma and needs assistance with his nebuliser. Although this is not a special educational need, his asthma is likely to be a disability for the purposes of the Act and so a failure to provide a reasonable adjustment will place him at a substantial disadvantage. The school trains up his teaching assistant and she provides him with the assistance he needs.

New guidance for schools on the public sector equality duty was also published on the EHRC website

Schools who are interested in their responsibilities under the Equality Act can contact us to to book a place on our next training session in conjunction with Cheshire Development Education Centre on the 20th March.

 

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