The Stokes case on school enrolment raises all manner of interesting issues.
On the face of it, the issue is simple. A Traveller child claimed that he was refused enrolment in a school on discriminatory grounds. He appealed to the Equality Tribunal, which upheld his complaint. The school took the case to the Circuit Court, where John Stokes lost. He then appealed to the High Court which agreed with the Circuit Court, and finally he appealed to the Supreme Court on a point of law. After five years of litigation, it made no sense to request access to the school, since John Stokes had finished his education, and therefore the court was simply requested to provide a declaration that he had been discriminated against.
The Supreme Court refused that request, though the judgements were mixed. Two of the five judges said that the issue had nothing to do with the Supreme Court, while the other three said that the matter had not been properly put before the High Court. Insufficient information had been produced.
Now, here are the facts. John Stokes, a Traveller, applied for admission to the Christian Brothers’ school on Clonmel, known as the High School. They refused him because they have an admissions policy which means that if demand exceeds places available, they choose applicants who meet the following criteria.
Children get preference if
- They are Catholic
- They come from a feeder school
- Their father was a student in the High School.
As it happened, John Stokes met two of the criteria. He is a Catholic, as all Travellers are and he came from a feeder school. But unfortunately, his father was not a former pupil of the school.
When the school refused him a place, John’s mother appealed to the Equality Tribunal, claiming that the decision was anti-Traveller, and the tribunal agreed. The school appealed to the Circuit Court, which overturned the tribunal decision and then the Stokes family appealed the Circuit Court decision to the High Court.
The High Court agreed with the Circuit Court and so they took it to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, time was passing by, young John was going through school somewhere else and the case was becoming increasingly abstract, since he was going to finish school somewhere else no matter what the Supreme Court decided.
Eventually, as mentioned, the Supreme Curt found against the appellants and that’s where the mattter stands.
What does all this mean?
On the one hand, you’d have to say that the Stokes family were rash to take the complaint all the way to the Supreme Court, since they must have known that their child would be finished school before the case was heard. But of course, there is always the question of principle.
On the other hand, what are we to make of the school’s admission policy? This is a school, like every other school in the land, whose entire costs are paid for by the State, also known as the taxpayer. And yet, this State-funded school feels entitled to lay down rules regarding admission, based on discriminatory criteria.
John Stokes was right to claim that he was excluded for being a Traveller, though that in itself raises questions in regard to the Equality Act and also in regard to Travellers themselves.
In the first place, we need to set out precisely what the grounds of discrimination are, under the law.
They are as follows.
- civil status
- family status
- sexual orientation
- membership of the Traveller community
Now, that final category, membership of the Traveller community, is nebulous and vague because the Traveller community is not defined anywhere in law, and a law without definition is not a law. It was inserted after intensive political pressure, which is never a good basis for legislation.
Nevertheless, the ground for discrimination exists in law, whether we regard it as logical or not.
John Stokes’s case was that discrimination took place because the school admissions policy gave preference to children whose fathers had also been students in the school. Therefore, because Travellers didn’t go to school, he was discriminated against.
This argument is difficult to complete, without knowing precisely how John Stokes’s father was prevented from attending school, but in any case, the courts didn’t accept it.
However, the corollary of the legal case is even more interesting. If the Stokes argument had been upheld, then you might equally be prevented from excluding the children of immigrants.
But in order to be consistent, this school has no right to exclude the children of non-Catholics or the children of people too disabled to attend the establishment.
After all, this school is paid for out of the public purse. Since we pay all their bills, isn’t it about time we stopped these schools imposing their private rules on the rest of us?