The High Court has decided that a school's policy banning the cornrows hairstyle was unlawful and constituted indirect race discrimination.
In the case of G v Head Teacher and Governors of St Gregory's Catholic Science College, the School's uniform policy banned cornrows for boys, although African-Caribbean girls were permitted cornrows, under the uniform requirement that girls tie back long hair.
One of the School's reasons behind its uniform policy was its concern to keep any gang culture out of the School. The School believed that distinctive haircuts could be badges of ethnic or gang identity and could lead to disunity. The Claimant was unable to take up his place at the School as he was unwilling to comply with the School's policy on cornrows and he lodged a claim that the School had indirectly discriminated against him on the grounds of his sex and race.
The Claimant argued that there are people of African-Caribbean ethnicity who regard the cutting of their hair to be wrong and they need it to be tied back in cornrows. The Claimant argued that this was based on culture and ethnicity. The School argued that voluntarily adopted socio-cultural practices associated with a particular race are not covered by race discrimination law. The Court rejected this argument on the basis that family and social customs can be part of ethnicity within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.
The Court decided that the School had indirectly discriminated against the Claimant. When considering the School's justification argument it found that, although the aim of the policy was legitimate, the indirect discrimination was not justified. In particular, it was significant that the Department of Education guidance specifically referred to possible discrimination arising from a prohibition on cornrows.
The indirect sex discrimination claim failed on the basis that cornrows for African-Caribbean girls were acceptable because they were a satisfactory means of keeping long hair neat and under control and this was an acceptable rationale.
This is an interesting case, which should encourage schools to re-examine their hair and clothing policies for potential discrimination. It is noteworthy that the Court decided that family and social customs can form part of ethnicity and that it is these factors that can often bring a person of a given ethnicity within the protection of the Equality Act 2010.