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Revisiting the Brook case

There is very little case law about single and separate sex services and gender identity. Only one case has been litigated since the Equality Act 2010 was enacted.

In 2014 Halifax County Court awarded £1,500 in damages to S Brook, who was refused access to the women’s toilets of a pub and then barred after complaining.

The case is what is known as a “first instance”, which means it wasn’t appealed and did not create a legal precedent (legal precedents mean that court must follow decisions of previous decisions of the same or higher court in cases that are similar in relation to the facts and the legal issues). * some updated information on this at the bottom of the post (1/6/20)

No transcript of the judgment by Judge Miller is available. Nevertheless it has been reported as a “landmark case” and has been influential. It is leaned on heavily by those who argue that self-declared “gender identity” gives someone the right to access to single sex changing rooms, showers, toilets, hospital wards, dormitories and so on shared with members of the opposite sex.

The site of the landmark case

For example, the Government Equalities Office’s 2015 guide “providing services for transgender customers” produced together with the lobby group Gendered Intelligence cites the case in support of its statement that it would be direct discrimination to “refuse to allow a woman [sic] to use female facilities because staff perceive her to be male.”

The Women and Equality Select Committee report on Transgender Equality saw the case as a demonstration of the “gender reassignment exception” (Schedule 3, paragraph 28), suggesting it cannot be relied on in a case such as pub toilets. The 2018 UK Government Consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act cites the case in support of saying that “refusing a transwoman with or without a GRC access to a female toilet in a pub is likely to be unlawful.” This same statement is repeated in a House of Commons briefing paper in January 2020.

However these statements conflict with a straightforward interpretation of sex and the Equality Act; single sex services for women do not have to admit men, and male people who self identify as women remain legally men.

As trans rights activist Dr Harry Josephine recently reflected in an analysis of the law and single sex services:

So, if you’re legally male, you can be excluded from single sex spaces by default. 

Dr Harry Josephine

The Green case

The problem with the Brook case for advocates of “trans inclusive single sex spaces”, is that it disagrees with the judgment in Green v Secretary of State for Justice 2013 (which went to the High Court and thus did create a precedent).

The Green case involved a transwoman prisoner (convicted as Craig Hudson for his part in the torture and murder of his wife and of perverting the course of justice). It wasn’t about single sex services as Green was held in a men’s prison but the question of whether Green, who had a male appearance and genitalia was discriminated against by being denied tights, a wig, prosthetic breasts and vaginas (the prison governor argued that these items are a security risk), as well as difficulty in obtaining other items such as concealer make-up, sanitary towels, hair removal products and outsize women’s shoes and clothing.

The judgment is relevant because it considered whether in a “gender reassignment” discrimination case the appropriate comparator was a person of the same sex or the opposite sex. Comparators are frequently used in discrimination cases as a means to test whether a person was treated less favourably than a similar person without the same protected characteristic. Judge Richardson found in the case of Green that the appropriate comparator was a man who was not transitioning/transitioned:

“He is in a male prison and until there is a Gender Recognition Certificate, he remains male. A woman prisoner cannot conceivably be the comparator as the woman prisoner has (either by birth or election) achieved what the claimant wishes. Male to female transsexuals are not automatically entitled to the same treatment as women – until they become women.”

HHJ Richardson

As Law Professor Alex Sharpe notes in a recent Modern Law Review article, that finding puts a major spanner in the works for any self identifying transwomen who wish to claim discrimination from being excluded from women’s services:

Thus, if a trans woman brought a discrimination claim on the basis of exclusion from a women-only bathroom or domestic violence refuge, her experience would be compared to that of a non-trans man. Obviously, and even applying the ‘proportionality’ test, a non-trans man would have been excluded. The conclusion that must follow is that there has been no discrimination.

Alex Sharpe

In the Brook or on the Green?

So why did the judgment in Brook differ from the judgement in Green?

Alex Sharpe says the reason is that high court judge Jeremy Richardson “must be wrong” (because Sharpe is sure that parliament’s intention in the Equality Act was to allow males to self identify into female spaces). Sharpe says (citing the unrecorded Brook judgment from the lower court) “it seems unlikely that Green would have survived an appeal or that our superior courts presented with such a scenario today would proceed as HHJ Richardson did.”

Harry Josephine joins in the wishful thinking, but also has some more information on the Brook case:

“I have confirmed personally with the lawyers who brought the [Brook] suit that the question of whether or not the woman had a GRC never came up in court. So the judge in Brook 2014 did not consider that the judgement in Green 2013 applied to the case. Interesting! You don’t need a GRC to claim gender reassignment discrimination after all. Perhaps Green 2013 indeed doesn’t apply beyond prison after all.

Harry Josephine

Clare McCann, a barrister who specialises in transgender equality said something similar about the case in a legal opinion to the Women and Equality Select Committee in 2015. She notes that “it did not appear that the defendant pub owner sought to rely on paragraph 28, Schedule 3, of EqA” (which allows gender reassignment discrimination in relation to single sex services). Her theory is that:

Perhaps this was because it was so unlikely that providing separate toilets for men and women and not allowing the trans female customer to use the ladies toilets was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Clare McCann

This she admits is speculation.

Both Sharpe and Josephine are personally, philosophically and professionally invested in the idea that “trans women are women” and that males who identify as women have a right to use women’s services. McCann similarly takes a one sided view about the inclusion of males in women’s spaces, for example writing an article on toilets and gender identity in 2017 which did not mention the impact on women at all.

Since everyone else is speculating on what happened in the Brook case, allow me too to speculate.

But first lets look at what we know about the case.

What happened in the Halifax pub?

The only public record of the case is a 2014 press release from the Kirklees law centre. It says Susan Brook” has lived as a woman for over 20 years and has undergone gender re-assignment surgery.”

The incident happened in July 2012 when Brook attended the New Inn pub in Halifax. Brook went to the ladies toilets “but was followed in by another lady who told her that she should not use the ladies toilets.”

Brook spoke to the landlord of the pub “but he refused to assist. He later barred her from the pub and confirmed that she should not use the ladies toilets and must use the gentleman’s toilets.”

Brook has written a short article which gives more context on Brook’s life.

S Brook, 2016

Rather than living for 20 years “as a woman” the article describes many years as a part time cross dresser before Brook “told my GP I would like to change gender in mid 2009”, and had “my operation” in November 2012, followed by breast augmentation in February 2014. The pub incident happened in July 2012.

Up to, and after these operations, Brook’s life story as told in the article is marked by long periods of unemployment, personal conflict, alcohol problems and mental health issues.

My face didn’t fit [in the Royal Air Force] and I was given all the worst jobs, extra duties and ceremonial duties. I found that no matter how hard I tried whatever I did was never right and this led to me being charged on numerous occasions and 2 short prison terms.

I had also begun to drink to the excess during this time which brought more trouble and eventually hospitalisation for rehabilitation purposes.

Having been discharged from the air force I was divorced in early 1991 and moved to Ovenden where I lived for a short period before losing my flat, I was also fired from my job as a security guard at Websters brewery when I notified my employer I intended to undergo gender reassignment.

I was finally offered a flat of my own in 1994 by the council and moved to Mixenden, which brought its own problems caused by prejudice.

From here I was able to start rebuilding my life. I found some casual work in a local garage and after a month or so I told the garage owner that I was transgender before he heard it from a new customer who knew of me. I initially thought he would be prejudiced against me but once I had explained my stance he became a good friend. Even though I now had a firm address full employment still eluded me due to lack of qualifications or experience, or so employers told me.

I had suffered from mild depression for many years and had put this down to my struggle to become the woman I always should have been, but now realised that was not the case. My depression also had a side effect in that I found it difficult to socialise as I would often end up arguing with people over nothing.

Clearly Brook is a troubled and vulnerable person, who was being treated by a doctor for gender dysphoria, but does that mean a right to use spaces provided for the bodily privacy of the opposite sex?

The Equality Act allows provision of single sex services for various reasons including “circumstances where a person of one sex might reasonably object to the presence of a person of the opposite sex” (Schedule 3, paragraph 26 (6). This was the exception that the publican was using (probably unwittingly) in providing men and women’s toilets.

And a woman did reasonably object to the presence of someone she rightly perceived to be male.

My speculation….

So why did Judge Miller not consider the precedent of Green in determining whether the correct comparator for Brook was a man or a woman? Or why did he not consider whether the gender reassignment discrimination exception in Schedule 3 paragraph 28 of the Equality Act could be used as justification for exclusion?

My guess is probably because the publican Barry Tasker did not bring these points of law up. We do not know if he was a litigant in person, or had representation. Either way possibly he went to court thinking the whole thing was ridiculous, and assumed it would be thrown out. He viewed Brook as a man and had treated Brook like any other man; he had done (in his mind) the obvious and right thing in backing up a woman who had been made scared and uncomfortable by the presence of a male in the women’s toilet (I have found no suggestion anywhere that he was disrespectful or derogatory to Brook in doing this). His experience as a publican had probably taught him that having non-negotiable rules about whether adult males are allowed in the women’s toilets was entirely sensible, and his responsiblity was to maintain order in his pub.

Perhaps the idea that discrimination law might be used to force him to treat a man as a woman, in a situation that would humiliate his female customers, and put them at risk just never occurred to him. (And perhaps Alex Sharpe is wrong in thinking that this is what the legislators were thinking when they included “gender reassignment” in the Equality Act; perhaps they just meant that transsexuals should not be discriminated against or harassed in general, in employment and as customers).

What was the judge thinking? Perhaps he consulted the EHRC Code of Practice or other guidance. Perhaps his attention was drawn to the EHRC guide for business, which at the time said specifically a transsexual person should not be given a worse standard of service in a pub by “refusing them access to the toilets appropriate to the sex in which they present.” (this was removed from the guidance in 2018 ). Perhaps he was influenced by the Equal Treatment Bench Book which calls the protected characteristic sex “gender” and advises judges to ignore questions of anatomy and biology, and says that a self identified transwoman should simply be referred to as a woman.

Whatever it was, there was no sign that he considered and dismissed the finding in Green. Nor that he found it was not “a proportionate means to a legitimate aim” to exclude males from women’s toilets.

Rather he seems to have been convinced that “transwomen are women”, or at least that is what you are meant to say, and this made him forget to consider that what was at stake was a workable policy to protect the ordinary dignity, privacy, inclusion and safety of women drinking in the pub.


1 June 2020 Update: I enquired to Kirklees Law Centre for any more information on the case:

They confirmed that the publican was a ‘litigant in person’ (i.e. did not have a lawyer), and also that he did not attend the final hearing. So the case was uncontested – the Judge only went through the the claim and spoke to Brook. “As there was no Defendant present he went no further. Judgement was reserved and sent out later. There are no reasons.”

The mystery of why the publican didn’t defend the case is solved quite prosaically: he attended the preliminary hearing to say to the judge that there was no point to the case, because if damages were awarded he would wind up the company (and that is what he did).

The question of whether discrimination arose from Brook not being allowed to use the female toilet facilities or from Brook being barred from the pub was not raised, nor was there any examination of evidence on the circumstances that led up to Brook being barred that day.

This is the full basis on which the case was decided. It should not be taken as an authority for anything – either formally in law, or informally by presented as so in government documents and guidance.

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