Onyemekeihia v Minister for Justice and Equality


Respondent/Defendant:Minister for Justice and Equality
Court/s:High Court
Nature of Proceedings:Appeal
Judgment Date/s:08 Dec 2023
Judge:O'Regan M
Keywords:Discrimination (Direct), Discrimination (Indirect), Discrimination (Racial), Employee, Employment

Facts: The appellant, Mr. Onyemekeihia, was employed as a prison officer in Mountjoy Prison. He was subjected to constant racial abuse by some prisoners. He complained to the Irish Prison Service (IPS) about the racial abuse. He subsequently made two complaints to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), and one of these decisions was appealed to the Labour Court.

The IPS argued that prisons are a unique environment and the prison rules have sanctions for prisoners for misconduct. The IPS sought to rely on the practicable defence requirements under section 14A of the Equality Act 1998, as amended. This provides a defence for the employer in a situation in which a contact of the employer (e.g. a prisoner) harassed an employee such that it was considered discrimination and the employer took such steps as are reasonably practicable to prevent the person from harassing the victim or any class or person that includes the victim, or steps to prevent the victim from being treated differently, and insofar as any such treatment has occurred, took steps to reverse its effects. In turn, the appellant’s evidence in the Labour Court was that the prison rules were inadequate and sanctions were never implemented or only briefly implemented. Witnesses on behalf of the appellant submitted that a focus on rules and sanctions was too narrow, and that education and a more visible policy was required.

In the hearing in the Labour Court, it was found that the IPS consistently took a robust approach to deal with allegations of racist behaviour and the sanctions were meaningful and proportionate. It recognised that the IPS’s approach to equality and diversity is evolving and that it may not have been given to date an adequate level of attention and thus, the Labour Court directed the Respondent to conduct a thorough review of its anti-racism strategy and policies with regard to international best practice.

Reasoning: In the High Court, the appellant argued that the finding of the Labour Court was irrational. O’Regan J. stated that it was difficult to reconcile the finding of the Labour Court that, on the one hand, the IPS have a consistently robust approach, meaningful and proportionate sanctions and an active anti-harassment policy, and, on the other hand, the finding that the IPS has not given racism and racial harassment sufficient attention and the direction for them to conduct a review of their anti-racism strategy and policies. This was held to be insufficiently explained and was therefore irrational.

It was also held that the Labour Court did not fulfil its obligation to give reasons for its decision. As regards the claim of indirect discrimination made by the appellant, including with reference to the Race Equality Directive 2000/43/EC, O’Regan J. held that the Labour Court should have made some reference to indirect discrimination as opposed to ignoring the issue.

The adequacy of the Prison Rules 2007 in providing adequate sanctions or an adequate policy was considered a matter for the Labour Court and not the instant proceedings.

Decision: The decision of the Labour Court was set aside.

Principles:When considering a claim of harassment under the Equality Acts 1998, as amended, a finding cannot be made that the approach of an employer to address racial harassment was on the one hand consistent and thorough and, on the other hand, was in need of revision and improvement.
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