Portmarnock wins 'men only' case

Tue, Nov 3, 2009, 00:00

The Supreme Court today dismissed the Equality Authority’s appeal against a decision Portmarnock Golf Club is not a “discriminating” club under the Equal Status Act.

By a majority of three to two, the Supreme Court upheld a 2005 High Court decision that the club, while refusing to admit women as members, is not a “discriminating” club under the Act because it fell within exemption provisions in Section 9 of the Act.

Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Mr Justice Hugh Geoghegan and Ms Justice Fidelma Macken agreed with the High Court while Ms Justice Susan Denham and Mr Justice Nial Fennelly disagreed.

The case arises from a 2004 District Court ruling, given in proceedings brought by the authority, that Portmarnock was a “discriminatory” club not exempt under Section 9 on the basis its “primary purpose” was to play golf and not to cater for the “needs” of male golfers.

Section 8 of the Equal Status Act states a club shall be considered a discriminating club if it has any rule, policy or practice which discriminates against a member or an applicant for membership. Section 8 also provides for the suspension of the registration of such a club, meaning it could not get a drink licence.

Section 9 provides a club “shall not be considered to be a discriminating club...if its principal purpose is to cater only for the needs of persons of a particular gender..\[or] it refuses membership to other members”.

The sides had agreed Portmarnock, established in 1894 and now having 662 members and 625 associate members, is a discriminating club in the colloquial sense as its rules limits membership to “gentlemen”.

The legal dispute was whether it is a discriminating club under the Act and that depended on the court’s interpretation of the meanings of “principal purpose”, “cater only” and “needs” in Section 9.

The authority argued the club is a discriminatory club under the Act on grounds its “principal purpose” is to play golf, not to cater only for the “needs” of men. The club contended its principal purpose was to cater only for the golfing needs of men.

In his judgment allowing the appeal, Mr Justice Hardiman said the club argued it was a gentlemen’s golf club, a golf club for gentlemen. The authority said that could not be so within Section 9 because, in the authority’s view, the club provided facilities for the game of golf which was not a “need” of men.

The ordinary, natural and literal meaning of the word “needs” is that set out in the Oxford English Dictionary and it was broad enough to embrace social, cultural and sporting needs as well as more basic needs for things such as air, food and water, the judge said.

In his view, the authority’s construction of the term needs was “a narrow, outdated and unnatural one”.

Dissenting, Ms Justice Denham said she was of the view the principal purpose of Portmarnock golf club was golf and that it catered for the needs of men and women, not just men.

If the club’s principal purpose was to cater only for the needs of men, then it might avail of the exception under Section 9.1, she said. However, its principal purpose was golf and it was therefore a discriminating club.