Equal Status Bill ruled unconstitutional


THE Equal Status Bill was ruled unconstitutional yesterday by the Supreme Court. The President, Mrs Robinson, will be informed of the decision.

The court found that two sections of the Bill were unconstitutional as they were similar to two provisions in the previous Employment Equality Bill, which, it had ruled last month, were repugnant to the Constitution.

Yesterday it also ruled that once the court knew at the outset that two parts of the Equal Status Bill were indisputably repugnant to the Constitution there was no reason why it should consider its other provisions.

The five judge court stated that many of the Bill's sections were inoperable as they were dependent upon the Employment Equality Bill being made law. However the first Bill had not been signed by the President because of its unconstitutionality.

The President referred the Equal Status Bill to the Supreme Court on May 27th, under Article 26 of the Constitution, to test its constitutionality.

The Bill had provided for protection against discrimination for travellers, certain religious groups, homosexuals, and people with some disabilities, among others.

The two sections now ruled unconstitutional in both Bills are those relating to the provision for vicarious liability in relation to criminal offences and to the admission of evidence in a criminal prosecution of facts in a document certified by the Equality Director.

Yesterday, the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Hamilton, said the court had found itself confronted by a Bill containing two sections which were indisputably repugnant to the Constitution.

The Bill contained numerous references to the Employment Equality Act 1997 when in fact no such Act existed at the time of the passing of the Equal Status Bill last April because the first Bill had not been signed by the President.

It did not exist because the Supreme Court had decided that certain provisions were repugnant to the Constitution so the President did not sign it into law.

"It is unfortunate that the Oireachtas passed the (Equal Status) Bill at a time when the Employment Equality Bill 1996 had been referred by the President to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether it or any provision of it was repugnant having regard to the terms of the Constitution, because the Bill and the Employment Equality Bill 1996 were inextricably linked," the Chief Justice said.

The new Bill contained two sections which were similar to two provisions in the Employment Equality Bill which were found by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Also, some of the provisions of the Equal Status Bill were dependent upon the enactment into law of the provisions of the Employment Equality Bill.

The Chief Justice gave as one example that the Bill did not provide for the appointment of either an equality director, equality officers or mediation officers other than by reference to the Employment Equality Act.

The circumstances relating to the reference by the President of the Employment Equality Bill were entirely different from those relating to the referral of the Equal Status Bill.

For the first time in the history of the reference procedure under Article 26, the President had referred to the court a Bill which was known to contain provisions in similar terms in all material respects to provisions contained in a Bill referred on an earlier occasion which were now known to be unconstitutional.

As a result, counsel for the Attorney General properly and unavoidably acknowledged that there were no submissions which they could advance in support of the constitutionality of either of these provisions.

The court accepted the submission that the mere fact that a Bill was, in part, inoperable, did not of itself make it unconstitutional.

However, the Bill contained two provisions which were unconstitutional and once the court at the outset of its deliberations knew that, it was difficult to see why it should embark on a consideration of other provisions of the Bill.

There was no justifiable issue for the court to try.

The Rainbow Government approved the drafting of a new Equal Status Bill, with modifications to make it comply with the Supreme Court judgment, at its second last Cabinet meeting yesterday, writes Geraldine Kennedy, Political Correspondent.

This was announced by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mr Taylor, who said he was not surprised by yesterday's Supreme Court decision on the Bill. The judgment was, in effect, consequential on the court's earlier decision in respect of the Employment Equality Bill 1996, he added.

The Equality Bill had been sent back for redrafting last month, he continued, and the same course was now being taken on the Equal Status Bill.

"I have already indicated my deep concern at the earlier judgment on the rights of people with disabilities to have reasonable accommodation made for them," Mr Taylor stated.

He had referred the issue in the employment context to the Interdepartmental Task Force on the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities for urgent consideration.

The Irish Council of People with Disabilities called on the incoming government and all elected legislators last night to rectify immediately the intolerable situation for people with disabilities.

Expressing its regret at the Supreme Court's ruling, the council restated its call for a change in Article 40.1 of the Constitution and the reintroduction of both Bills in the first session of the new Dail.