Families at Work: Discrimination on the Grounds of Marital Status

The Claimant was employed by a company, in which her husband was the Chief Executive, when a policy prohibiting the employment of close relatives was implemented.  This led to both the Claimant and her daughter being dismissed.

The EAT decided that, unless the ground for the less favourable treatment is specifically "that they are married”, rather than only that they are in a close relationship which happens to take the form of marriage, there is no discrimination because of marital status.

LJ Underhill observed that "although marriage and a close personal relationship usually go together, they are conceptually separate and not inevitable corollaries of one another.”

In short, the policy applied to close relationships and not solely to spouses.  The Respondent was not motivated by the fact that the Claimant was married to her husband.  Accordingly, the EAT found that the treatment was not because of marital status.

However, this was a departure from a recent case of Dunn v Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.  In that case, it was held that a detriment which arose from being married to a particular person, not just being married, could give rise to a marital status discrimination claim.

The two EAT decisions appear to conflict on the subject of whether being married to a particular person is protected under the marital status umbrella.  Until the issue is clarified by a higher court, employers should be wary of dismissing employees simply because they are married to colleagues.