THE EQUAL STATUS BILL
The Equal Status Bill, ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, was one of the more advanced and least controversial pieces of legislation put forward by the outgoing Government. It has fallen because of its inextricable links with the far more contentious Employment Equality Bill, previously found repugnant to the Constitution. A Government which came to power expressing its commitment to a more liberal and pluralist society thus prepares to leave office without seeing one of its best intentions brought to fruition.
For women subject to harassment, for people with disabilities, for the travelling community and for others who would have been protected by the legislation, the Bill's striking down will be a great disappointment.
The successful efforts by women over the years to highlight the ugliness of sexual harassment and associated bullying would have been given legal force by the banning of such practices had the Bill passed into law. Gratuitous discrimination against members of the travelling community would also have been made illegal by the legislation and it is significant that the Irish Traveller Movement, which greeted the publication of the Bill as historic, should be among the first to regret its demise.
People with disabilities appeared likely to gain; more than most from the Bill. Hindered by negative attitudes engendered by thoughtlessness at best, to real prejudice at worst, they stood to make concrete gains under this legislation. Not only would discrimination against them have been banned but transport companies, in both the state and private sectors, would have been obliged to make their services accessible. Another heartening aspect of the Bill was that it went much further than simply declaring certain discriminatory activities to be illegal; it provided a solid framework for enforcing its proposals. A Director of Equality Investigations, for example, would have been appointed to hear complaints and would have been empowered to award compensation of up to £5,000 to those judged to have been discriminated against.
Codes of good practice which, if approved by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, would be taken into account in court proceedings and the power to issue nondiscrimination notices ordering the recipients not to discriminate, were among the Bill's more significant features.
In one of his final statements before retiring from political life, the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mr Mervyn Taylor, has pointed out that the Government, in addition to its decision to draft a new Employment Equality Bill, had now agreed to draft a new Equal Status Bill. This legislation will fall into the hands of the new Fianna Fail Progressive Democrat administration and it is to be hoped that its general principles and its specific methods of implementing them, will find a receptive audience.
It is hoped too that the new Dail and Seanad will heed the remarks of the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Hamilton, describing as unfortunate the passing of the Equal Status Bill by the Oireachtas when the Employment Equality Bill with which it was inextricably linked had been referred to the Supreme Court. It had been clear from the outset that should one Bill fall, the other would automatically follow.