Council pays out but denies discrimination

COMHAIRLE nan Eilean Siar has paid a local parent £1,000 in compensation and covered his legal fees in an out-of-court settlement over discrimination claims.

Dr David Michael raised a small claims court action against the council under Section 45 (4) of the Equality Act 2006 which covers discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief by way of victimisation.

The council offered the compensation without admission of liability and paid the legal bill of £1,438.80.

Dr Michael says he took the action after years of what he describes as ‘poor service’ by his local school. He argued the reason for this was due to his personal atheism views clashing with strong views of staff at the school. He claims that the action was taken as a last resort after a formal letter of complaint from a solicitor was ignored by both the school and the local authority and that they also failed to respond to a request for more information from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Despite the out-of-court settlement, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar stressed this week that their agreement to settle had been purely on economic grounds and that they absolutely denied any allegation of discrimination.

A spokesperson said: “The cost to the tax payer of having a civil hearing in court being far in excess of the cost of settling the action.”

Dr Michael’s complaints to the school included difficulties when he requested that his child be withdrawn from religious education.

He said he was told this would also include the child being withdrawn from all school assembly occasions and Christmas activities which he felt would have ‘a horrible effect on my child.A spokesperson for the Comhairle responded that this had all started due to Dr Michael’s objections to the RE curriculum and that it was not correct that withdrawal from RE would mean he removal from assemblies and Christmas activities.

“It is worth noting that this started because the parent objected to the teaching of the RE curriculum, particularly the teachings about Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela whom he doesn’t think are suitable role models.

“He also questioned whether Nelson Mandela should be portrayed in a positive light. Whilst the Comhairle respects parents’ beliefs, and in this case has been flexible and accommodating, the Comhairle was not prepared to alter the curriculum at the demand of a parent who expressed such views.

The spokesperson said Dr Michael was asked if he wanted to remove his child from all religious events which would include assemblies and Christmas activities and if not, then other arrangements could be made and that is what happened.

“The Comhairle will always try to be flexible in providing the best possible education whilst taking cognisance of parents’ beliefs – nothing has changed as a result of this action other than the cost to taxpayers.”

Dr Michael believed his child was being taught in a way which was completely unsuited to his needs as he had a mild attention problem at the time and that some of the comments made to him in RE were inappropriate.

He was also dissatisifed with the response to his queries about his child’s development and requests to see his child’s school record.

He explained this had escalated into a legal problem when the council placed restrictions on his interactions with school staff and failed to respond or even acknowledge solicitor’s letters.

“The message I was getting from all of this was that I was dealing with people who considered themselves to be above the law and who thought that mere parents would not dare to assert their rights.” he said.

“Under those circumstances I felt that I had little option than to issue a summons.”

Dr Michael also felt that his child was at an educational disadvantage because there were restrictions on his ability to be involved, because he had made a complaint.

He said: “This was not a dispute about religion but about standards in our schools.

“I remain concerned about the arrogant way in which the local authority education department deals with members of the public.

“In my view the department has serious organisational culture problems and I call upon the director to address these urgently.”

The case was brought by Iain Nisbet, Head of Education Law at Govan Law Centre, with support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland.

Mr. Nisbet said: “This is a tremendously important case.

“Not only is it the first time that a religion and belief discrimination case has been brought to court in relation to a pupil’s education, it underlines the breadth of anti-discrimination duties which schools now have to comply with.

“Although the legislation has now been updated, the Equality Act 2010 is no less rigorous when it comes to protecting the rights of pupils of different religions or beliefs.”

A Comhairle spokesperson refuted the comments. Defending the Comhairle he said: “The Comhairle absolutely denies any allegation of discrimination. 

“The Comhairle maintains that the beliefs of the parent have always been respected.  The Comhairle remains committed to ensuring the best possible education for children in the Western Isles whilst being sensitive to the faith (or no faith) of parents.       

“The parent’s statement says that this case was not about religion – a statement with which the Comhairle agrees. 

“The Comhairle is puzzled by the statement made by the parent’s solicitor as it would appear to contradict his client’s statement. 

“There has been no examination of the claims made by the parent.  No evidence has been led and there has been no judicial opinion on those claims. 

“This was not about religion as Dr Michael acknowledges. Mr Nisbett’s claims are therefore spurious and seem to be at odds with those of his client.”

The £1,000 compensation received by Dr Michael is to be donated to the school fund. He says that that things have now changed for the better in the school and parents are being given much more of a say on issues affecting the school.