R (Watkins-Singh) v Governing Body of Aberdare Girls' High School

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division (Administrative Court)
JudgeMr Justice Silber
Judgment Date29 Jul 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] EWHC 1865 (Admin)
Docket NumberCase No: CO/11435/2007

[2008] EWHC 1865 (Admin)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

ADMINISTRATIVE COURT

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Before:

Mr Justice Silber

Case No: CO/11435/2007

Between:
The Queen on the Application of Sarika Angel Watkins-singh (a Child Acting By Sanita Kumari Singh, her Mother and Litigation Friend)
Claimant
and
The Governing Body of Aberdare Girls’ High School
Defendant
and
Rhondda Cynon Taf Unitary Authority
Interested Party

Helen Mountfield (instructed by Liberty) for the Claimant

Jonathan Auburn (instructed by Evans Quartermaine of Caerphilly) for the Defendant The Interested Party was neither present nor represented

1

Hearing dates: 17–19 June 2008

2

Numerous further written submissions from 20 June 2008 until 11 July 2008

Mr Justice Silber
3

I. Introduction

4

1. The issue raised on this application is whether on the particular facts of this case a particular school was entitled as a matter of public law to refuse to allow a Sikh girl to wear at School the Kara, which is a plain steel bangle which has a width of about 50 millimetres which is about one-fifth of an inch and which has great significance for Sikhs. This judgment is fact-sensitive and it does not concern or resolve the issue of whether the wearing of the Kara should be permitted in the schools of this country. Indeed, that is not a question that a court could or should be asked to resolve. Nothing that appears in this judgment seeks to resolve or to throw any light on this problem or the circumstances in which a Kara should be permitted to be worn in schools or any other arena in this country. Indeed it follows that nothing in this judgment is intended to be any comment on the traditions or the requirements of the Sikh or indeed any other religion and community.

5

2. In recent years, a number of school girls have sought unsuccessfully to challenge rules made by their schools which prevented them from wearing items which they considered necessary as part of their religious faith. Decisions of governors have been upheld which prevented pupils in certain schools wearing the Jihab which is a long coat-like garment ( R (on the application of Begun) v Head Teacher and Governors of Denbigh High School [2007] 1 AC 100—“Begum”), the wearing of the Niqab veil ( R (on the application of X v Head Teacher and Governors of Y School [2008] 2 All E.R. 249 —“ X v Y”) and a Silver Ring Thing purity ring ( R (on the application of Playfoot) v Governing Body of Millais School [2007] ELR 484—“Playfoot”).

6

3. Each of those applications has been founded largely, if not solely, on the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 but in this case the claim is based mainly on the totally different provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976 (“RRA”) as amended and the Equality Act 2006 (“ EA”), which are provisions on which the claimants in the previous three cases were unable to rely but on which the claimant can and does rely.

7

4. This present application concerns the wearing of a Kara, which is a small plain steel bangle worn by Sikhs as a visible sign of their identity and faith. It is 5 millimetres wide and is therefore much narrower than a watch strap and many ordinary bangles. As I observed in court, it cannot be seen when the claimant is wearing a long-sleeved sweater.

8

5. The handing-down of the judgment has been delayed as I wanted to receive (and did receive) submissions from Miss Helen Mountfield counsel for the claimant and from Mr Jonathan Auburn counsel for the defendant on the recent detailed decision of Munby J in R (E) v Governing Body of JFS etc [2008] EWHC 1535 (Admin), which was handed down after the hearing in the present case ended. In addition, there were many post-hearing developments about the race equality policy of the school.

9

II The Facts

10

6. In the present case, Sarika Angel Watkins-Singh (“the claimant”), who is acting though her mother and litigation friend, is a 14 year-old Sikh school girl of Punjabi-Welsh heritage, who challenges a decision made on 26 October 2007 and which is continuing by her school Aberdare Girls’ High School (“the school”) and which has prevented her from wearing a Kara at her school. The claimant contends that these decisions of the Governing Body of the school (“the defendant”) were based on errors of law.

11

7. The school is a maintained girls’ non-denominational school in Wales. The Interested Party is the local authority which maintains the school but it has not played any part in these proceedings.

12

8. The claimant, who was born on 20 September 1983, entered the school in September 2005. Her father was Welsh but he died when she was a year old and when she was five years old, her mother married her step-father. He is an observant Sikh and the person who the claimant regards as her father. The claimant, who was given a choice as to which religion, if any, she wishes to follow, has selected the Sikh religion, which has become particularly important to her since her visit to India in March 2005.

13

9. The claimant's school reports have been generally good and she enjoyed being at her school until towards the end of 2006 when she became a victim to various incidents of racial bullying, which she believed that the Head Teacher and the governors did not treat as a serious issue. As at May 2007, the claimant was a prefect and on 4 May 2007, the Head Teacher of the school had written to the claimant's mother congratulating her on the claimant's academic performance.

14

10. In April 2007, a teacher at the school observed the claimant wearing a bangle, which was her Kara. The teacher asked the claimant to remove it because it contravened the school's uniform policy; which permitted only one pair of plain ear studs and a wrist watch to be worn by pupils. It is not disputed that from April 2007 when the school first sought to prevent the claimant from attending school wearing the Kara, she was and remains an observant, although a non-initiated, Sikh.

15

11. When the claimant refused to remove, it she sought an exemption from the policy because she stated that wearing her Kara was a matter which was central to her ethnic identity and religious observance as a Sikh. Miss Rosser, who was the Head Teacher at the school, told the claimant's mother in a letter dated 2 May 2007 that “I have no problem with [the claimant] wearing her bracelet if governors agree”. She added that if the school were to allow the claimant to wear the Kara until the matter was resolved by the defendant, this would constitute discrimination against many other pupils who were not allowed to wear a cross because of the school's jewellery policy, which was contained in the School's Code of Conduct which provides that:

“Jewellery often poses a health and safety hazard to school activities. Pupils are allowed to wear a wrist watch and one pair of plain metal studs in the ear. No other jewellery is permitted. All jewellery must be removed for PE and swimming. Body piercing is not permitted. Adhesive jewellery to teeth or any part of the body is not allowed. Pupils will have excess or unacceptable jewellery confiscated”.

16

12. The claimant's mother provided information about the Kara to the school but the meeting of the defendant was delayed pending receipt by the defendant of some unspecified national guidance.

17

13. A meeting of the defendant took place on 13 June 2007 at which it was decided to postpone again the decision as it was thought necessary to obtain advice from the local education authority (“LEA”). In the meantime, the claimant's mother was asked not to allow the claimant to wear the Kara at school but instead she, that is the claimant, should carry it in her bag. The claimant's mother said that she would let the claimant decide whether she wished to do so but the claimant did not return to school until 12 July 2007 after the intervention of the LEA's welfare officer.

18

14. Upon her return to school, the claimant was interviewed by Miss Rosser and she was told that she would be permitted to attend the school wearing her Kara but only on the condition that she would be taught in isolation and that she would be kept socially segregated from other pupils. Miss Rosser explained this in a letter to the claimant's parents of 12 July 2007. The segregation was strictly enforced and she was even accompanied to the toilet by a member of staff, who waited outside.

19

15. The defendant refused the request for an exemption and that the claimant would not be allowed to wear the Kara at school. The reasons given for the refusal in the decision letter on 20 July 2007, which arrived at the claimant's home shortly after the end of the Summer term, were that:

“1. The panel has not been convinced that, as part of her religion, it is a requirement that Sarika wears the Kara (bangle) on her wrist. It is suggested that, as an alternative, it is possible that it could be worn/carried elsewhere on her person.

2. If it was to be allowed as an exception to the school rules, it is felt that there is a possibility that Sarika may be singled out as being different from her peers and that such actions may result in bullying or similar repercussions.

3. The wearing of the Kara would give rise to health and safety issues. This would require a risk assessment being conducted prior to a variety of lessons being undertaken, this assessment may require the removal of the item which again would single the pupil out”.

20

16. It is not disputed that those were the defendant's genuine three reasons for refusing the request for an exception. I should add that the claimant has said that she is quite prepared to compromise and...

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    ...words, however, to be applied without undue analysis or with undue sensitivity. I accept that the analysis in R (Watkins-Singh) v the Governing Body of Aberdare Girls' High School [2008] EWHC 1865(Admin), [2008] ELR 561 is correct but could be misinterpreted so as to lead to an inappropria......
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