Emily Bendell, a successful female entrepreneur was refused membership of the “gentlemen-only” Garrick Club earlier this year. 

Ms Bendell has now sent a letter to the club requesting it opens its membership to women or face legal action on the basis that the club is in breach of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act).  Her aim is to force the club to open its doors to females for the first time in its 149 year existence.

What does the Equality Act say?

Most people are aware that, under the Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of certain “protected characteristics”, such as sex or race. However, the Act also covers other areas of life beyond the workplace, including the use of public and private services.

The reports state that Ms Bendell is relying on section 29 of the Act, which requires businesses who provide a service to the public (or a section of the public) not to discriminate against anyone requiring that service by refusing to provide it to them. Ms Bendell has argued that the club is a service-provider providing services such as networking opportunities to a section of the public, and therefore refusing to providing women with the service is discriminatory on the grounds of sex.

As things stand, it appears Ms Bendell is using this argument to secure membership, but, if she succeeds, the same section of the Act would prevent the Garrick Club from subjecting her to inferior terms of membership, terminating her membership or subjecting her to any other form of detriment because of her gender. Female members would also be protected from harassment and victimisation from the club whilst it provided its services.

The Club's legal position

Perhaps surprisingly, the Club may not technically be breaking the law.

These sorts of issues have arisen recently in relation to male-only golf clubs, for example Muirfield Golf Club. The club maintained that it was not breaking the law by restricting membership to men only on the basis that private clubs and associations (defined as having at least 25 members and rules regulating who can be a member) can restrict their memberships to people who share a particular protected characteristic.  As such, they argued, the Act did not apply to them. (As a further example, it would be perfectly legitimate for an association for deaf people to restrict access to deaf people only, and not those with a different disability.)

Muirfield’s members finally voted to allow female membership in 2019 after it was blacklisted by golf’s governing body. As their members eventually decided to allow female members at their own discretion, the legal argument was not tested in court.

Although the Garrick Club has not commented so far, it is likely they will rely on a similar arguments.  

Notwithstanding the legal position, the Garrick Club's stance seems at odds with the prevailing views of society in general. 

Incidentally, the Garrick Club employs a number of women, including its Club Secretary, and indeed, as recently as 2015, a majority of members of the Garrick Club voted to allow female members. (although this fell well short of the two thirds majority required under the club’s own rules to change its membership criteria).

It remains to be seen whether this incident will ultimately be decided in a court of law, or whether the Garrick Club’s members will take matters into their own hands to avoid a very public debate on these issues.