Portmarnock Golf club wins discrimination case

 

Portmarnock Golf Club, which does not permit women to join as members, is not a "discriminating" club under the terms of the Equal Status Act 2000 because it falls within an exception provided for in that Act, the High Court ruled today.

Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins said the promotion of equality and the prohibition of types of discrimination, the express purposes of the ESA, were "legitimate and laudable" goals of legislation.

However, the interpretation of the Act which was contended for by the club - that it was not a discriminating club because its principal purpose was to cater for the needs of male golfers - did not undermine those aims but rather recognised the fact there was "nothing inherently undesirable with persons seeking, in a social context, the society of persons of the same gender or the same nationality or the same religion".

In a tolerant, free and increasingly diverse society, it was not surprising to have the type of exceptions as envisaged by Section 9 of the ESA - which provides a club may be considered not to be a discriminating club if its "principal purpose" is to "cater only for the needs" of persons of a particular gender, he said.

As a result, it was permissible to have a bridge club for Bulgarians, a wine club for women and a golf club for gentlemen. In a reserved judgment on proceedings between the Equality Authority and the club, which centred on the interpretation of Section 9, Mr Justice O’Higgins upheld a claim by the club that, in light of the provisions of Section 9, the club "shall not be considered a discriminating club" under Section 8 of the ESA.

Section 8 provides that 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 or if a person involved in its management discriminates against a member or applicant for membershiop in relation to the affairs of the club.

Section 8 also provides that, where a club refuses to admit a person to membership or provides different terms and conditions of membership for members or applicants for membership, such acts are evidence the club is a discriminating club.

In light of his agreement with the club on the interpretation of Section 9, the judge said he had not proceeded to make findings on constitutional issues raised in the case. However, he had made observations on those issues in which he disagreed with the club’s interpretation of the issues and instead favoured the interpretation of the Attorney General.

After handing down judgment, Mr Justice O’Higgins adjourned the proceedings to June 15th to allow the parties consider his 46-page decision and to address the issue of costs. The Portmarnock club was founded in 1894 and has a membership of 662 members and 652 associate members.

The dispute between the club and the EA related principally to Rule 3 of the club which states: "The Club shall consist of members and Associate Members..who shall be gentlemen properly elected and who shall conform with the rules of amateur status." The EA initiated proceedings against the club in May 2003 in which it sought a declaration that the club, by refusing membership to women, was a discriminating club under the ESA.