Mishcon de Reya has helped achieve a significant milestone for Dalit Solidarity Network UK and a consortium of Dalit organisations in a challenge to the UK government over the non-implementation of the promised legislation to outlaw caste discrimination in the UK. Following a pre action communication with the government, the Minister for Equalities, Justine Greening, confirmed that it will start a consultation to take place for 12 weeks at the end of this year.
Under the caste system, which is practised most commonly on the South Asian continent, individuals are born into a lifelong hierarchical status. Traditionally, there are four principal castes and one category of people who fall outside the caste system—the Dalits. Previously known as the 'Untouchables' and the lowest rank of society, Dalits have habitually faced discrimination at almost every level within their communities despite it being illegal under the Indian constitution. There is clear evidence of caste discrimination amongst the South Asian diaspora in the UK, affecting Christians, Hindus, Muslim and Sikh communities.
Dalits have campaigned since 2007 for the inclusion of ‘caste’ as a protected characteristic (like race and gender) in what was then the UK’s Single Equalities Bill – now the Equality Act 2010. As a result of a meeting in February 2010 in the House of Lords – when national, regional and local organisations representing hundreds of thousands of Dalits in the UK came together – an amendment was included in the Equality Act 2010 which allowed for the introduction of secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race under the Act as soon as evidence of caste discrimination had been properly assessed. The then Labour government commissioned research into caste discrimination in the UK from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. Their report was published in December 2010, confirming the existence of caste-based discrimination in the UK. The report recommended that, in addition to education on this issue, "extending the definition of race to include caste would provide further, explicit protection".
By an amendment effected by section 97 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, the ability for caste to become an aspect of race then became an obligation for the Government to so legislate. In July 2013, the government introduced a timetable that set out a series of steps, including a public consultation, intended to lead to the enactment of this caste legislation in the summer of 2015. Key deadlines in this timetable have not been met, and to date the government remains silent on whether it will make an Order under section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010 so as to provide for caste to be an aspect of race. In July, in the House of Lords, Lord Harries called a debate to question the current government on its steps to outlaw caste discrimination in the UK as agreed in Parliament in 2013. Despite three years having passed since the amended law came onto the statute books, the response from the Minister was noncommittal, citing that the new government would look at this afresh.
Also in July, Lord Lester QC spoke on the issue in Parliament, commenting: "The current state of the law lacks legal certainty - there is no binding and authoritative legal precedent. That legal uncertainty violates the rule of law, and the government’s continuing inaction violates Parliamentary sovereignty. The uncertainty could be removed either by expensive and protracted litigation up to the Supreme Court or by the government performing its statutory duty without further procrastination respecting Parliamentary supremacy."
Mishcon de Reya's Employment team is acting on a pro bono basis for Dalit Solidarity Network UK to challenge the UK government on this matter with Diya Sen Gupta and Daniel Cashman of Blackstone Chambers who are also acting pro bono.