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Student Work Placements and the Equality Act 2010 – Court Guidance

In an important decision, the Court of Appeal has overcome an apparent lacuna in the drafting of the Equality Act 2010 to come to the aid of students who suffer discrimination whilst carrying out work placements as part of their studies.

A student nurse who was enrolled on a university course had recently become a mother before she was offered a work placement by an NHS trust. She claimed that that offer was subsequently withdrawn because of her childcare responsibilities. In reliance on the ban on discrimination contained within the Act, she lodged a complaint against the trust with an Employment Tribunal (ET).

In a decision which was later upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, however, the ET declined jurisdiction to hear her claim. That was on the basis of Section 56(5) of the Act, which excludes from protection students of institutions which provide access to external training courses or guidance. The decision meant that the only course of action open to her was to launch County Court proceedings.

In upholding her appeal, the Court found that, on a correct interpretation of the Act, the ET did have power to hear her complaint. It noted the ‘clumsy’ wording of the relevant part of the Act and the possibility that a drafting error had occurred. It upheld arguments that it was necessary to construe the legislation so as to achieve conformity with European anti-discrimination laws.

The Court found that, where a complaint is made by a student against a university, or other educational institution, that a work placement has been refused, or provided in a discriminatory manner, such a claim could only be brought in the County Court. However, where a complaint was brought against a provider of such a placement, primary liability would generally lie with that provider and the correct forum would be an ET.