(Tarun Khaitan, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford and the Hackney Fellow in Law at Wadham College has proposed a draft Equality Bill, 2016 and myLaw has invited some scholars and advocates to comment on it. This is the third response we have published and it is from a team from the Centre for Law and Policy Research. Tarunabh has asked us to convey his gratitude for the comments from Alok and Talha and he has already revised his draft in light of those comments.)
The Draft Equality Bill, 2016 is an ambitious legislative proposal. This Bill aims to advance civil remedies against discrimination by private and public actors on several grounds. It follows a sequence of civil society proposals for a new civil equality law in India like the Bangalore Declaration in 2007 or the Lawyers Collective’s HIV/AIDS Bill 2007. In the last decade, at least two reports by committees established by the Government of India have proposed new initiatives to serve social equality: the Equal Opportunity Commission: What, Why and How? in 2007; the Sachar Report Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, 2006. Three new book length works on equality have been published in the last 3 years: Tools of Justice: Non-discrimination and the Indian Constitution by Kalpana Kannabinan; A Theory of Discrimination Law by Tarunabh Khaitan and Unconditional Equality: Gandhi´s Religion of Resistance by Ajay Skaria.
At present, equality law is composed of constitutional rights and a hotchpotch of legislation to provide remedies against different types of discrimination in India. Some legislations provide criminal remedies, like the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 others offer civil remedies, like the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and the Equal Remuneration Act 1976; a third category adopts a welfare approach like the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. These legislation address certain aspects of equality in a particular sector or for certain specific groups. There has been no overarching equality law that has inbuilt flexibility to respond to the varied aspects of equality.
The draft Bill aims to fill in this lacuna by protecting an open-ended list of characteristics, establishing new concepts such as separation and boycott, relying on the principle of proportionality, and imposing negative and positive duties on public and certain private parties.
Though well-intentioned, the Bill raises several fundamental questions which have constitutional implications. This essay interrogates whether the Bill goes beyond the constitutionally permissible means to achieve the aims of equality. This analysis is organised in two parts: the first is an analysis of the concept of equality that the Bill proposes and the conflict it poses to other rights while the second part deals with the judicial review approach.
Equality and other rights
Expression and association
The material scope of the Bill is wide enough to cover a wide array of parties and relationships hitherto outside the ambit of the law. The protected grounds are also wide, loosely defined, and open ended. For instance, ‘harassment’ covers any communication or conduct related to a protected characteristic or group that creates an “intimidating, hostile or bullying environment”. Section 7(2) also provides that in order to determine what constitutes such an environment, the point of view of a “reasonable person belonging to that protected group” will be taken into account. The politics of who constitutes the “reasonable person” in the protected group might play out adversely to the detriment of the fundamental freedoms we have in the Constitution, especially with regard to freedom of speech and expression. This is because the Indian courts have tended to disregard the demands of liberty and autonomy.
Similarly, the definition of segregation under Section 9, is too broadly phrased. It covers any “overt or implicit abetment, support, encouragement, facilitation of, or use of force, coercion or manipulation” with the intent of preventing a person from “interacting with, relating to, marrying, eating with, living with, socialising with, becoming friends with…” The import of such drafting is that under the current framework of the Bill, families, inter-personal relationships such as friendship, private contractual relationships between individuals are covered under it.
Further, the legal duties are novel and extensive. In contrast to the anti-discrimination duty under Section 12, which applies to only certain categories of persons (employer, landlord, trader, service provider, public authority, and private persons performing public functions), the duty not to engage in aggravated forms of discrimination, under Section 14 which includes boycott, harassment and segregation applies to everybody. Additionally, while there exists a list of exceptions to the anti-discrimination duty under Section 12, the same does not extend to the case of aggravated discrimination. This list of exceptions includes for instance, “any form of expression protected by Article 19 of the Constitution”. In other words, the duty to avoid aggravated discrimination has been already cast wide and without a list of exceptions qualifying the same, can end up conflicting with autonomy and free speech. If interpreted too literally by the courts, this Bill can have detrimental effects on the autonomy of individuals to freely enter into private relations on the basis of contract.
Trade and Business
Another significant issue that arises with this Bill is the way it will pit one right against the other.
This is chiefly due to the broad, unremunerated list of protected characteristics in the Bill. Sections 3 and 4 the Bill defines the meaning of protected characteristics and groups respectively. Even a cursory glance through these two sections will indicate the wide scope and application of the Bill. Besides expressly mentioned protected characteristics, the Bill provides a guideline for the courts to define new characteristics.
The combination of this open-ended list of protected characteristics and the newly introduced concept of indirect discrimination may end up creating legal uncertainty because an excessive burden will be placed on private parties as they may not foresee the consequences of their own conduct when they enact or enforce a neutral measure at their work place. The private individual may face a variety of different remedies as a legal consequence of indirect discrimination including damages. Thus, this might lead to an undue burden on to the individual´s exercise of the fundamental right to trade and business under Article 19(1)(g).
Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the Bill as it currently stands should effectively hand the powers to the courts to curtail or expand the scope of equality as it deems fit. Judicial doctrine on equality in India is underdeveloped. Given the Indian courts’ reluctance to expand the range of protected groups and an established model of executive identification of disadvantaged groups, it is unclear why courts should be given this important task. Judicial institutions, especially in an adversarial system are not well equipped to carry out an assessment of which groups are disadvantaged. In this regard, it may arguably, be a better suggestion for the Equality Commission to promote a data-driven, transparent, identification of protected groups and characteristics. Currently, the only power before the Central Equality Commission under the proposed Bill is to recommend the inclusion of disadvantaged groups under Section 16. This list of disadvantaged groups is only significant for the imposition of a diversification duty under Section 18.
However, the courts are free to expand and limit the interpretation of protected group and characteristics under Section 3 and 4.
Judicial review approach
The Equality Bill, 2016 relies on the doctrine of proportionality on multiple instances. Under Section 5(7)(i) and Section 6(2), proportionality is used as justification for acts which amount to prima facie direct and indirect discrimination respectively. The Bill however, does not provide an independent clause which defines the doctrine of proportionality. If anything, it provides a negative understanding of proportionality under Sections 5(9) and 6(3) when it mentions that a conduct will not be deemed proportionate if there exists other less discriminatory ways of achieving the objective of the Bill. Such an understanding of proportionality falls short of the definition of proportionality which has been adopted by constitutional courts across other jurisdictions. It can therefore be assumed that the Bill relies on the understanding of proportionality which has been adopted by the Indian courts to complement the limited definition provided in the bill.
The Indian courts’ jurisprudence on the doctrine of proportionality is underdeveloped. Abhinav Chandrachudand Soli. J Sorabjee argue that although the Supreme Court had adopted a test of proportionality in Om Kumar v. Union of India, AIR 2000 SC 3689, its later judgements have gone on to reformulate the doctrine of proportionality so as to make it similar to the Wednesbury principles of unreasonableness by adopting the language of “shocking disproportionality” instead of the three-tier test which the doctrine of proportionality prescribes. In the process, even though the courts have used the language of proportionality, they have lost the essence of the doctrine. However, in a recent judgement of the Supreme Court in Modern Dental College v. State of Madhya Pradesh, Civil Appeal No.4060 of 2009, the court correctly interpreted the doctrine, though it failed to apply the same adequately to the case as it did not adjudicate over whether the method adopted was the least harmful method available when compared to the alternatives available. Though this case brings back the doctrine of proportionality as a test for the validity of a statute, it doesn’t address the lack of clarity with regard to what the principle requires in an adjudication context.
In light of the argument above, it becomes necessary to define proportionality in the Bill so as to ensure that the confusion created by the courts regarding the definition if the doctrine does not get inscribed into the Bill. If the doctrine is left undefined as it has been done in the Bill, it would fail to achieve the purpose it is designed to achieve as it operates as an anchor of the judicial approach to the law.
The Bill effectively establishes a new hierarchy of the Indian legal order which might undermine the Indian constitution. This new hierarchy puts this Bill below the constitution but above every former and future Act of Parliament. It equips the High Court with two novel powers, an interpretation of compatibility and a declaration of incompatibility.
Under this Bill, in Section 26, the High Court has the duty to interpret formerly and subsequently enacted law to be compatible as far as possible with this Bill. This is the first stage, which leads to a new de facto legal hierarchy. In addition to the Constitution, this Bill, if enacted guides the interpretation of other acts. Thus, a claimant may invoke this Bill to challenge an interpretation of another law, which might be incompatible with this Bill. Therefore, this Bill operates as a new standard of validity of all other laws.
Further, another new power given to the High Court under this section is the duty to issue a declaration of incompatibility where a subsequently enacted Act cannot be interpreted in a way which would be compatible with this Bill. Although a declaration of incompatibility has no legal consequence on the validity of the reviewed Act, it amounts to a soft review as it imposes political pressure on Parliament to change the incompatible law.
These two new measures are not novel to persons familiar with public law in the United Kingdom. The key remedies under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”) are an interpretation of compatibility and a declaration of incompatibility. Although the transfer of legal remedies into other legal system might be beneficial, it should be done with great caution. The HRA and its key measures are seen as a compromise between effective human rights protection and parliamentary sovereignty under an uncodified constitution. This special situation does not apply to the Indian situation. India has a codified constitution under which human rights are protected and fully enforceable by the Supreme Court through hard judicial review. Therefore, there is no need to create an intermediate level of human rights protection that this Bill seeks to do. A higher human rights protection against a legislation may only be achieved under the current legal system by amending the Constitution. This Bill, however, institutes new grounds for judicial review of Acts of Parliament without following the constitutional amendment procedure.
Additionally, this provision also has the powers to upset the principle of federalism under the Constitution. This Bill, by allowing any later act which might include also state legislation to be reviewed under this Bill, impedes upon the law making powers of the states.
Furthermore, there is a risk that the Indian courts will adopt case law of the British courts by interpreting the concept of compatibility. The Indian courts have already a tendency to adopt British principles into Indian law as may be observed in judicial review in administrative law. Therefore, if the Bill draws on a one to one remedy already existing in the British legal system it actually invites the Indian courts to follow their lead by interpreting the remedies in the same way. This blind importation of the case law may even further compromise the current constitutional framework as the British courts constructed the interpretation of compatibility very broadly. All provisions, notwithstanding their wording, may be read down to the extent that it does not compromise the “key features” (Ghaidan v. Godin-Mendoza,  UKHL 30) of that Act. This means, if adopted by the Indian courts, that the hard judicial review under this Bill would apply to almost all provisions of reviewed Acts and effectively amending the hard judicial review under the constitution without following the constitutional amendment procedure.
Even if, the legal issues expressed above are addressed, there remains a concern with an approach to achieving equality through the ordinary civil remedy that relies to heavily on the courts as the key legal institution for enforcement. In a society where access to justice is still beyond the reach of the millions it is questionable whether such an approach would ultimately manage to create a significant, measurable impact in curbing discrimination.
This article was originally published in myLaw on August 3rd, 2016.