Notes from a Foreign Field: Developing Indirect Discrimination – Bringing Fraser to India [Guest Post]

[This is a guest post by Gauri Pillai.]


Article 15(1) prohibits the State from discriminating against any citizen ‘on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’. The Supreme Court, in the now infamous Nergesh Meerza, read Article 15(1) to mean that discrimination should not be made ‘only and only on the ground of sex’ but could be made ‘on the ground of sex coupled with other considerations.’ On the one hand, the ‘on ground only of…sex’ test functions to bring in a requirement of intention to discriminate. The presence of a reason for discrimination—say, to protect women—operates as an ‘other consideration’, bringing the rule outside the scope of the non-discrimination guarantee, even if the effect of the rule is to disadvantage women (see here). Discrimination in thus understood to mean intentional, individual acts of prejudice tied to the ‘moral blameworthiness’ of actors. There is no recognition that ‘such prejudices are frequently embedded in the structure of society’, the ‘unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules’: in other words the ‘everyday practices of a well-intentioned society’, beyond the conscious coercive actions of a ‘tyrannical power’ alone.  On the other hand, the ‘on ground only of…sex’ test excludes indirect discrimination. Facially neutral rules having an adverse effect on members of a specific group would amount to ‘other considerations’ beyond the listed ground, thus placing such rules outside the reach of Article 15(1) (see here).

However, the Supreme Court trilogy in Sabarimala, Joseph Shine and Navtej Johar offers an alternate reading of the non-discrimination guarantee. First, the scope of Article 15(1) was extended to ‘institutional and systemic discrimination against disadvantaged groups’, thereby tackling ‘structures of oppression and domination’ excluding members of these groups from full and equal social, economic, political and cultural participation (Chandrachud J., concurring opinion, Sabarimala, paragraph 117 and Joseph Shine, paragraph 38). Thus, there was a shift towards understanding discrimination in a structural sense. Second, the central enquiry under Article 15(1) was no longer the intention of the discriminator. Rather, the ‘primary enquiry to be undertaken by the Court’ was whether a rule, in form or effect, ‘contributes to the subordination of a disadvantaged group of individuals’ (Chandrachud J., concurring opinion, Joseph Shine, paragraph 38). Finally, the ‘on ground only of…sex’ test was dismissed as a ‘formalistic interpretation’ of Article 15(1), because it failed to recognise the ‘true operation’ of discrimination (Chandrachud J., concurring opinion, Navtej Johar, paragraph 36). Instead of relying on the formal basis of classification—the listed ground ‘plus’ the facially neutral criterion—Article 15(1) was reoriented to focus on the effect a facially neutral rule. In other words, indirect discrimination was recognised, and brought within the scope of the non-discrimination guarantee.

Despite the steps forward, several questions still remain unanswered. How does the recognition of discrimination as a structural phenomenon affect the doctrinal functioning of the non-discrimination guarantee? What is the test for indirect discrimination? How should courts assess the impact of a rule? What forms of impact are relevant? What kind of evidence is suitable and necessary for such impact assessment? Answers to these questions are crucial to enable Courts to apply these concepts going forward. In their absence, these ideas could remain at the level of rhetoric, without translation into doctrine. In this post, I present the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in Fraser v Canada—interpreting the non-discrimination guarantee under Section 15 of the Canadian Charter—as offering clear responses to these questions, and thus providing normative and doctrinal guidance for India. However, before I get into discussing the case, it is important to interrogate briefly why a decision from Canada is relevant for constitutional jurisprudence in India: why should India listen to Canada?

Canada offers a helpful comparative because the constitutional function of the non-discrimination guarantees in the Canadian Charter and the Indian Constitution bear significant similarities. As the Court recognises in Fraser, ‘the root of s. 15  is our awareness that certain groups have been historically discriminated against, and that the perpetuation of such discrimination should be curtailed’ (paragraph 77). An identical commitment underlies Article 15, the object of which has been identified as guaranteeing protection to ‘those citizens who had suffered historical disadvantage’ by removing their ‘age-long disabilities and sufferings’. This is reinforced by the placement of Article 15 within the ‘equality code’, consisting of Article 16, which permits the State to treat members of disadvantaged groups differently through reservations, offering them ‘real and effective’ equal opportunity for employment; Article 17, which abolishes untouchability to free Dalits from ‘perpetual subjugation and despair’, ‘social inequity, social stigma and social disabilities’; and Article 18 which prohibits an Indian citizen from accepting titles in order to dismantle social hierarchy, or the perceived superiority of some over the other.

Having set out the similarities in the constitutional vision underlying the non-discrimination guarantees in India and Canada, I now turn to Fraser. In 1997, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (‘RCMP’) introduced a job-sharing program to provide its members an alternative to taking leave without pay. Under the program, two or three RCMP members could split the duties and responsibilities of one full-time position, allowing each participant to work fewer hours than a full‑time employee. The petitioners, three female employees of the RCMP, enrolled in the job‑sharing program along with 137 other members. Most participants were women, and they cited unilateral responsibilities for childcare as their reason for joining the program. Ms. Fraser described feeling ‘overwhelmed’ as she tried to balance work and family; Ms. Pilgrim felt like she was ‘on a treadmill’; and Ms. Fox recounted the experience as ‘hell on earth’ (paragraph 7). The RCMP introduced a rule deeming the job-sharing position part-time work for which participants could not receive full-time pension credit. This policy was challenged by the petitioners as having a disproportionate, adverse impact on women, thus violating their right to non-discrimination under Section 15.

The Court began by identifying the shift away from a ‘fault-based’ conception of discrimination towards an ‘effects‑based model which critically examines systems, structures, and their impact on disadvantaged groups’. The shift, the Court observed, was premised on the recognition that discrimination is ‘frequently a product of continuing to do things the way they have always been done’ rather than an intentional, prejudicial act by an individual actor (paragraph 31). In other words, the Court identified discrimination as structural, in general. The Court then set out how parenting is structured socially in Canada. Citing evidence, the Court observed that the public sphere, including the workspace, continues to be built on the male norm, and requires an ‘unencumbered worker’ with no responsibilities of care. At the same time, the private sphere, including the home, continues to be built on the labour of women who unilaterally undertake a major share of parental responsibilities (paragraph 104). In other words, the gendered division of labour, a product of inequality between the sexes, is systemically built into the ‘everyday practices’ of Canadian society. While this recognition is significant in and of itself, how did it influence the claim under the non-discrimination guarantee?

The lower courts rejected the discrimination claim holding that while most employees who lost out on pension benefits due to job-sharing were women, the loss occurred due to the ‘choice’ of the petitioners to job-share. The Supreme Court in Fraser however used the understanding of discrimination as structural—in general and in the specific context of parenting—to contest this notion of ‘choice’. The Court observed that choice should not be assessed as against an ‘autonomous, self-interested and self-determined individual’. Rather, a ‘contextual account of choice’, taking into account the ‘social and economic environments’ in which choices play out is necessary. The Court then applied this contextual understanding of ‘choice’ to women’s decision to job-share. The Court argued that the decision to job-share is far from an ‘unencumbered choice’. Against the structurally unequal institution of parenting, the only available option for women—‘euphemistically labelled choice’—is to opt for forms of accommodation like job-sharing, which are associated with lower wages, fewer benefits, fewer promotional opportunities, and minimal or no retirement pensions. If so, penalising them for this ‘choice’ by denying them pension benefits both punishes them for inequality, and perpetuates such inequality by exacerbating women’s socio-economic disadvantage, and entrenching stereotypes about women as ‘bad employees’ who ‘do not merit or want more responsible, higher‑paying jobs because they will inevitably prioritize family over work’. Thus, the Court highlighted the ‘flaws of over-emphasising choice’ in the Section 15 enquiry: ‘by invoking the “choice” to job‑share as a basis for rejecting the s. 15(1)  claim, the [lower courts] removed the “challenged inequality from scrutiny, effectively taking it off the radar screen so as to circumvent examination of the equality issues at stake”’ (paragraphs 88-92).

This does not imply that in the absence of inequality, women would never opt to job share and spend time with their children. The Court in fact recognised this by holding that ‘differential treatment can be discriminatory even if it is based on choices made by the affected individual or group’. This is because discriminating on ground of certain choices—like the decision to parent—violates human dignity and is thus inherently discriminatory, independent of inequality (paragraphs 86-86). Thus, the decision to parent was implicitly recognised as valuable by the Court, and job-sharing was seen as facilitating the decision by removing the disadvantage associated with it in the employment sphere. However, the Court did not develop this line of reasoning, as it mapped onto a claim of discrimination on ground of parental status which did not need to be pursued in light of the gender discrimination claim (paragraph 114).   

In assessing ‘choice’ in light of the structurally unequal institution of parenting, the Court also recognised the reason why it was women who primarily made the ‘choice’ to job-share:

[a] number of structural conditions push people towards their choices, with the result that certain choices may be made more often by people with particular “personal characteristics”. This is a key feature of systemic inequality—it develops not out of direct statutory discrimination, but rather out of the operation of institutions which may seem neutral at first glance (paragraph 90).

This then brought the Court to the issue on indirect discrimination. It also normatively grounded the recognition of indirect discrimination as a necessary response to the interaction between seemingly neutral rules and prevalent structural inequality. Indirect discrimination, the Court held, occurs when ‘a seemingly neutral law has a disproportionate impact on members of groups protected on the basis of an enumerated or analogous ground…Instead of explicitly singling out those who are in the protected groups for differential treatment, the law indirectly places them at a disadvantage’ (paragraph 30). The Court then set out a two-stage doctrinal test for assessing indirect discrimination.

At the first stage, the Court would enquire whether a rule, in effect, creates a distinction on the basis of a protected ground by having a ‘disproportionate impact’ on members of a group within the ground. The Court discussed the nature of evidence that could be used to prove this claim. On the one hand, evidence providing the ‘full context of the claimant group’s situation’ would be useful to demonstrate that ‘membership in the claimant group is associated with certain characteristics that have disadvantaged members of the group’. However, the Court was careful to note that evidence on issues which predominantly affect certain groups may be under‑documented. As a result, claimants may have to rely more heavily on their own evidence or evidence from other members of their group, rather than on government reports, academic studies or expert testimony. On the other hand, evidence—including statistical evidence—about the outcome of the rule, or a substantially similar one, in practice could offer ‘concrete proof that members of protected groups are being disproportionately impacted’. The Court clarified that there is no universal threshold on what level of statistical disparity is necessary to demonstrate that there is a ‘disproportionate impact’. Declining to craft rigid rules, the Court held that it would vary depending on the case. The Court also noted that both kinds of evidence are not always required: ‘in some cases, evidence about a group will show such a strong association with certain traits—such as pregnancy with gender—that the disproportionate impact on members of that group will be apparent and immediate’ (paragraphs 50-72).

Once the petitioner establishes that the rule, in effect, creates a distinction on the basis of the protected ground, the second stage of the enquiry starts. At this stage, the Court asks whether:

the law has the effect of reinforcing, perpetuating, or exacerbating disadvantage…The goal is to examine the impact of the harm caused to the affected group. The harm may include “[e]conomic exclusion or disadvantage, [s]ocial exclusion…[p]sychological harms…[p]hysical harms…[or] [p]olitical exclusion”, and must be viewed in light of any systemic or historical disadvantages faced by the claimant group (paragraph 76).

Thus, a focus on impact or effect of the rule is built into both stages of the test: first to determine whether the rule draws a distinction on the basis of a protected ground, and second to assess whether the distinction perpetuates disadvantage and is thus discriminatory. Applying the test to the case at hand, the Court held that the rule denying full pension benefits to job-shares, though facially neutral, had a ‘disproportionate impact’ on women. The Court relied on statistics—from 2010‑2014, all RCMP members availing job-share were women, and most of them cited childcare as their reason for doing so—and other evidence—commission reports, academic work and judicial decisions—’about the disadvantages women face as a group in balancing professional and domestic work… because of their largely singular responsibility for domestic work.’ This evidence, the Court held, established the ‘clear association between gender and fewer or less stable working hours’, and proved that the rule drew a distinction in effect between men and women, satisfying the first stage (paragraphs 97-106). Coming to the second stage, the Court held that the denial of pension benefits to women exacerbates women’s historical disadvantage. It impacts them socio-economically, with evidence suggesting that the feminisation of poverty is linked to the disparities in pension policies. At the same time, it also entrenches ‘a long‑standing source of disadvantage to women: gender biases within pension plans, which have historically been designed for middle and upper‑income full‑time employees with long service, typically male’. In other words, it retains the ‘male pattern of employment’, continuing to construct the public sphere around the male norm. In light of these ‘far‑reaching normative, political and tangible economic implications’ of the rule, it was held to perpetuate women’s disadvantage, and thus discriminate against women (paragraphs 107-113).

Thus Fraser demonstrates, with great clarity, how understanding discrimination as a structural phenomenon translates into the functioning of non-discrimination guarantee. It allows the Court to resist the rhetoric of ‘choice’ which can be used to subvert claims of discrimination. It also offers a compelling normative grounding for the recognition of indirect discrimination. Fraser further lays out a cogent two-stage test for establishing indirect discrimination, indicates the forms of impact that are relevant and describes the nature of evidence which can be used to prove such impact. It therefore provides clear normative and doctrinal guidance to India in developing the constitutional jurisprudence on indirect discrimination.

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