Women, snooker leagues and the Equality Act

On 26 March this year, Rebecca Kenna (ranked 3rd in the world of women’s snooker), announced she had quit playing in her local snooker league last year. The reason given was that certain men-only clubs playing in the league refused to allow her access to their venues to play matches. This meant she had to stay at home while her teammates went to the match.

Following her announcement there was widespread criticism of the situation as being discriminatory, but is it unlawful? The answer is likely to lie in whether the snooker league is a ‘service provider’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

Men only clubs?

Many may be surprised to learn that there is still such a thing as a snooker club that only admits men as members. However, this may be permitted under the Equality Act. Provided the club is an ‘association’ (i.e. it has more than 25 members and new members must be approved for entry) it may limit its membership to those who share a particular characteristic, in this case sex. However, such a club cannot offer different terms for male and female members.

In response to Rebecca Kenna’s announcement, Lynette Horsburgh (journalist, former top ranked snooker and pool player) recounted her history of fighting sexism in the sport, including resistance from female members who were unhappy that she had been allowed to play matches in their club, when they were only permitted to use the bar and not play snooker. This would no longer be allowed, membership privileges cannot be different for men and women.

What about the league?

Whilst men only clubs might be permitted, the league itself is not limited to men only and, in any event, is not likely to be an ‘association’ under the Equality Act as its ‘members’ are clubs and not individuals. However, by taking fees from clubs and running the league, is it a service provider with obligations under the Equality Act? Maybe. A key question will be whether the league is providing services to the public (i.e. the players personally) or if it is only providing services to the clubs participating in the leagues.

There may be no straightforward answer to this question, but the Equality & Human Rights Commission envisages a broad definition of ‘service provider’ which encompasses voluntary organisations who provide a service to the public, whether or not for payment. It could therefore be relevant that the league operates a registration system in respect of individual players, organises fixtures between clubs for such registered individuals to play in and also awards players handicaps, all of which afforded the players benefits and opportunity. If the Equality Act does apply then the league would be under an obligation to ensure that female players were not prevented from full participation in the league. However, at present the league rules simply say that female players must comply with each participating club’s internal rules on entry.

Are the clubs service providers themselves?

Where a club participates in an event like a league, it has to allow non-members access to its premises to take part. Arguably, in doing so, they are acting as ‘service providers’. There is some support for this in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance ‘What equality law means for your association, club or society’. One example given concerns a golf club that is an association where the guides states: ‘If someone does not have to be a club member to take part in a competition, then the golf club is also providing competitors with a service.’

Whilst this is only guidance and is therefore not determinative, it is nevertheless food for thought. If the club is acting as a service provider to other teams participating in the league, refusing to permit female team members access to the premises could amount to unlawful discrimination and require the club to make an exception to their entry rules in these circumstances.

What next?

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Snooker has written to the clubs concerned to see if they will change their position. World Women’s Snooker has also commented on the ‘antiquated discriminatory practices’ of these men only clubs.

It may also be open to Rebecca Kenna, or any female player excluded in the same way, from bringing a claim under the Equality Act. If successful they could be awarded damages, or the court may make a declaration or grant an injunction

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