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Marital Status Discrimination Ruling Overturned

In the recent case of Ellis v Bacon & Advanced Fire Solutions, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has overturned the original findings of the Employment Tribunal in a very rare marital discrimination case. The original case, heard by the ET in 2020, involved two married co-workers, Mr and Mrs Bacon, who were employed by Advanced Fire Solutions. Mr Bacon was a director of the company. Following the couple’s divorce, the Managing Director of Advanced Fire Solutions (Mr Ellis) dismissed Mrs Bacon for an alleged misuse of IT equipment and cyber breach, later reporting her to the police. Mrs Bacon subsequently brought a successful claim for unfair dismissal in the ET. The ET was persuaded that Mr Bacon was “pulling Mr Ellis’ strings” and that Mr Ellis was siding with his colleague in his marital dispute. The ET heard that Mr Bacon obtained a loan from the company with Mr Ellis’ consent to deal with the legal costs relating to his divorce, which was not repaid, whereas Mrs Bacon was not afforded the same opportunity. Moreover, Mr Ellis admitted to believing everything he was told by Mr Bacon without question. Consequently, the ET found that Mr Ellis had indeed subjected Mrs Bacon to less favourable treatment because of her marital status in relation to Mr Bacon. Mr Ellis appealed. On appeal, the EAT overturned the original finding of the ET. The EAT considered that the ET had incorrectly focused on Mrs Bacon being discriminated against because of her marriage to a specific person, namely Mr Bacon. Instead, the ET should have focused on Mrs Bacon receiving unfavourable treatment just because she was married, not because she was married to Mr Bacon specifically. Marriage and civil partnership are the lesser-known characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010. It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against job applicants or employees directly or indirectly, or to victimise them because they are married or are in a civil partnership. Cases such as these are rare in the UK, but employers should be aware of the risks. This case also highlights the benefits of having a ‘relationships at work’ policy so that employers can deal with marital/civil partnership breakdowns that manifest themselves in the workplace both professionally and fairly.

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