In an interesting recent decision, the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) dismissed a claim taken against a secondary school by a parent and legal guardian who alleged that he had been discriminated against on the grounds of gender and civil status grounds under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2004. We examine the facts of the case and suggest the best course of action for schools faced with similar complaints.

In an ideal world, parents/legal guardians of a child will jointly decide on enrolment. However, in circumstances where such parents/legal guardians cannot agree on enrolment or other matters pertaining to their children’s welfare, schools often find themselves in the “middle” of the enrolment disagreement.

Background

In this case, the separated parent claimed he was discriminated against due to the acceptance of his daughter’s enrolment by the school without his knowledge, involvement or consent. He further claimed that the requirement that he signify in writing his acceptance of the School’s Code of Behaviour, was an act of discrimination. The parent also alleged that he was victimised by the school notifying his estranged wife of the complaint he had made to the WRC.

Defending the claim

Our team defended this claim on the basis that the parent had not suffered any “less favourable treatment” by the school, that no discrimination had occurred, and that the claim was frivolous and vexatious in light of previous decisions of the Equality Tribunal taken by the parent against the school. The school denied that it had discriminated against the parent either on the grounds of civil status or of gender, or indeed in any other manner.

The Adjudicator noted that the parent had utilised the school’s complaints procedure against the Principal of the school. A resolution was arrived at between the parties at the informal stage of the procedure whereby the parent was allowed to sign the original enrolment form. Nevertheless, the parent then escalated his complaint to the formal stage of the parental complaints procedure, but subsequently failed to attend that meeting. The Adjudicator stated in the decision, “I am not satisfied that prior to that, unlawful conduct within the meaning of the Equal Status Acts has indeed taken place. Accordingly, I am satisfied that the complaint about the signing of the enrolment form is moot”. The Adjudicator held that the complaint regarding the enrolment form was, therefore, frivolous and vexatious within the meaning of section 22 of the Equal Status Acts.

In respect of the further claim that the parent was victimised by the principal allegedly informing his estranged wife and his daughter of the complaint, the Adjudicator noted that the parent was unable to prove that claim. On that basis, this further part of the parent’s complaint failed.

Conclusion

We recommend that if schools receive complaints from a separated parent claiming discrimination in terms of their treatment by the school, the parental complaints procedure should be offered in the first instance in an effort to resolve the complaint locally. Even if the complaint is not resolved between the parties, at the very least, it will show good faith on the part of the school should it need to defend its position in any future claim to the WRC.

We recommend that if schools receive complaints from a separated parent claiming discrimination in terms of their treatment by the school, the parental complaints procedure should be offered in the first instance in an effort to resolve the complaint locally. Even if the complaint is not resolved between the parties, at the very least, it will show good faith on the part of the school should it need to defend its position in any future claim to the WRC.