Is this the biggest setback to British equality law in modern history?
Three local authorities did not breach equality legislation by voting to boycott Israel, the High Court has ruled.
The judicial review proceedings against Gwynedd, Leicester and Swansea councils were dismissed by Lord Justice Simon and Mr Justice Flaux.
Claimant pressure group Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) had argued that the resolutions were anti-Semitic and “amounted to a get-out-of-town order for Leicester’s Jews”. However, the court held that council resolutions are not “formal and developed policy” and therefore not subject to the public sector equality duty under s149 of the Equality Act 2010 — and in any event there was evidence that councillors had fulfilled the duty by considering the impact of the motions on their local Jewish communities.
Simon LJ expressed concern at JHRW’s insistence that he closely analyse transcripts of debates from the Leicester council chamber:
This was not a productive exercise. Councillors do not (and should not) expect that their speeches will be scrutinised later in court to see whether the Council’s public sector equality duty was being properly addressed. It would significantly inhibit debate if this were a requirement of the law, and we see no warrant for it.
The local authorities themselves went further, telling reporters that JHRW was simply trying to “stop councils debating Israel”.
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This assertion does have some force. JHRW is a right-wing pressure group — a company rather than a charity so the source of its funding is unknown — which has appointed itself to (mis)represent the UK Jewish community. As Simon LJ noted, despite claims that the group had consulted widely with British Jews, there was “no evidence of any consultation at all”.
The organisation’s previous activities have included a string of press releases using Hitlerian imagery — ‘Achtung Juden’ (attention Jews) signs and the rest of it — to compare critics of Israel to the Nazis; threatened legal action against a pub for allowing a gathering of pro-Palestinian activists to hire one of its rooms; attempts to get the British citizenship of an anti-Israel protestor (‘Jew hater’) revoked; and a solicitor’s letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University complaining that an anti-Israel protest took place on his campus.
The Cambridge letter was sent by RHF Solicitors, a Manchester-based firm of “experienced and specialised insolvency solicitors”, who also acted for JHRW in the boycott litigation. They were no doubt persuaded to act outside their insolvency comfort zone by their founder Robert Festenstein, who is also a director of JHRW.
And he shows no signs of insolvency yet, because JHRW has vowed to appeal the High Court’s judgment. In a press release on Twitter, the group said (somewhat hyperbolically):
This decision means that local councils can not only call for a boycott of Jews, but for a ban on women assuming official positions, for payment of black people to leave town, for locals to shun homosexuals, for the disenfranchisement of Muslims and the exclusion of the disabled.
Is JHRW right, and Simon LJ has caused the most fascistic setback to British equality legislation in the last 50 years?
Or is this yet another example of political activists trying to use legal processes to trump civilised debate and democratic discussion?
Gabriel Webber is a freelance journalist and Sussex University graduate.