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Parris v Trinity College Dublin & Others: Pensions Equality

  • Ireland
  • General

31-05-2017

The Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) rejected a claim by a former lecturer of Trinity College that the University discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and age. This claim related to the University’s pension scheme that prevented payment of a survivor’s benefit to the lecturer’s partner in the event of his death.

Background

The University’s pension scheme provided for the payment of a survivor’s pension to the spouse or civil partner of the pension scheme member. However, this payment is dependent on the member having married or entered into a civil partnership before the age of 60. The lecturer entered into a civil partnership in the UK in 2009 when he was aged 63 and this civil partnership could only be recognised in Ireland in 2011 when the Civil Partnership Act 2010 entered into force.

The lecturer made a request in 2010, prior to his retirement, that on his death his civil partner, whom he had been in a relationship with for more than 30 years, should receive a survivor’s pension. The University rejected the request and later the Higher Education Authority upheld this decision. The lecturer then brought proceedings in the Equality Tribunal against Trinity College, the Higher Education Authority, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Education and Skills, arguing that he had been discriminated against contrary to the Pensions Act 1990. When the Equality Tribunal dismissed the case, the lecturer appealed to the Labour Court (“LC”) which decided to refer the matter to the CJEU.

CJEU proceedings

The LC referred three questions to the CJEU asking whether the pension scheme rule was discriminatory on grounds of sexual orientation, age and on both of these grounds combined, contrary to Directive 2000/78 (the “Directive”).2

The CJEU first considered whether the pension scheme rule amounted to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

The CJEU observed that the rule was worded neutrally and applies to both heterosexual and homosexual employees equally, excluding their partners without distinction, where the marriage/civil partnership is not entered into before the age of 60. The rule, thus, did not directly discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation.

The lecturer alleged that the rule indirectly discriminated against homosexual workers who had already reached the age of 60 on the date the Civil Partnership Act entered into force, because it would be impossible for them to satisfy the condition that the marriage/civil partnership be entered into before the age of 60.

The CJEU held that the rule did not indirectly discriminate against this group of homosexual workers because the lecturer’s inability to satisfy the condition was the consequence of the law that existed in Ireland at the time of the lecturer’s 60th birthday. Ireland was not required under EU Law, before the Civil Partnership Act entered into force, to provide for marriage or civil partnership for same-sex couples or to give retrospective effect to the Act. The Court dismissed the argument of discrimination based on age on a similar basis. The argument relating to discrimination resulting from the combined effect of sexual orientation and age was then dismissed, as discrimination had not been found on either of the grounds separately.

The lecturer’s case will now return to the LC.

Commentary

What is particularly interesting about this case is that the Advocate General (“AG”) concluded in her Opinion that the pension scheme rule did amount to indirect discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The AG stated that “a rule such as that at issue here has a particularly adverse effect on homosexual employees as a group because a substantial proportion of them, through no fault of their own, were prevented from securing State recognition for their existing partnership before their 60th birthday and thus from fulfilling the fundamental condition of entitlement to a survivor’s pension under the occupational pension scheme at issue.”

However, in May 2017, the General Scheme of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2017 was published which includes an amendment to the Pensions Act, 1990. This Bill would allow for the payment of a survivor’s benefit where the employee married or entered into a civil partnership within 36 months of it being lawfully possible to do so or for his/her foreign civil partnership to become recognised in Irish law.


1Case C-443/15 Parris v Trinity College and Others (24 November 2016)
2 Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (OJ 2000 L 303, p. 16).

Disclaimer

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