Sanchez loses against University of Bristol: Some thoughts.


Raquel Maria Rosario Sanchez v. University of Bristol is one of a slew of recent cases where 'gender-critical' individuals have brought claims alleging that they have been unjustly treated by institutions and organisations (so the narrative goes, who have been ‘captured’ by pro-transgender rights ‘ideology’) as a result of their views. However, last week’s judgment in this case revealed the true nature of Ms Sanchez’ claim against the University of Bristol (the “University”); that she was dissatisfied with the University’s reasonable (if not always particularly efficient) response to her complaints about other members of the university community, and so sought to obtain damages under a number of causes of action – all of which were rejected.


Background


The claims stem from objections to Ms Sanchez’s chairing of a gender-critical event, where she was billed as a PhD student of the University’s Gender and Violence Research Centre. Students at the University were concerned that the reference to her role at the research centre suggested that the views of Ms Sanchez and the organisers, the campaigning group Woman’s Place UK (“WPUK”), were endorsed by the University and protested. Ms Sanchez complained to the University about an open letter criticising the event; a critical motion subsequently debated by the Bristol Students’ Union (over which the University had no control); and critical, sometimes hostile, social media posts. In particular, the actions of a fellow PhD student (“AA”) were singled out. AA was later subject to disciplinary proceedings, which were ultimately abandoned – the conduct of those proceedings was also the subject of Ms Sanchez’ claims.


Breach of Contract and Negligence


Although Ms Sanchez did bring claims under the Equality Act 2010 (which related more to her gender-critical beliefs), the majority of the claims revolved around her view that the University had failed in its obligations to her as a PhD student, as a breach of contract and breaching a duty of care towards her. Essentially, Ms Sanchez argued that the University’s failure to take robust action to “protect” her from pro-trans rights opposition to her views entitled her to damages - for instance, by failing to take action against students for social media posts; failing to prevent the Bristol Students’ Union debate; or (impliedly) by failing to sanction the student, AA, whom Ms Sanchez identified as a ringleader. Ms Sanchez also took issue with the University issuing an open statement affirming the importance of freedom of speech (to all members of the university community), which she seems to have considered insufficient.


The Court rejected these arguments on the basis that no such duty of care was owed to Ms Sanchez by the University - and, even if there was such a duty, its actions (for instance, starting disciplinary proceedings against the student, AA) complied with that hypothetical duty. Whilst the disciplinary proceedings were certainly protracted, and communication with Ms Sanchez was at times poor, the conduct of the proceedings was sound. It is notable that Ms Sanchez did not seek to overturn the decision to terminate the proceedings against AA, but instead tried to circumvent it by erroneously claiming that no decision had been reached. Ms Sanchez also seemed to argue that the breach of contract was similarly based on this hypothetical duty of care which was implied into the contract between her and the University; this argument was, necessarily, also rejected.


One of Ms Sanchez’ more headline-grabbing allegations was that the University had orchestrated a suspension of her PhD course, ‘tricking‘ her in order to invalidate her scholarship and force her to leave. The Court found no basis to support her belief that the suspension was punitive or intended to trick her, since she had agreed to it as the only viable option to preserve her scholarship due to the disruption she said that this saga had caused to her studies. The Court concluded, as a general observation, that,

Unfortunately [Ms Sanchez’] evidence caused me to conclude that she was so convinced that the [University] was determined to and did discriminate against her…that she sought to rationalise all things done or not done by the [University] as evidence of that discrimination…[1]


Equality Act 2010


Contrary to how it was portrayed, notably on Ms Sanchez’ own crowd-funding page with its hostile fixation on trans people and their allies, this case was fundamentally concerned with the conduct of the University in handling a complaint from an aggrieved student. This would explain why her claims under the Equality Act 2010 (the “Act”) come across as afterthoughts - and, certainly, occupy very limited space in the judgment.


The Court found that Ms Sanchez had failed to prove that the University had had (as per the Act) a policy, criterion or practice of, “not sanctioning students who rely on “trans rights” activism to justify their conduct…” Thus, her claim for indirect sex discrimination was rejected. Similarly, in pursuit of her concurrent claims for victimisation and harassment, Ms Sanchez’ assertion that she suffered a detriment due to undertaking a ‘protected act’ was rejected on the basis that almost none of the issues that she identified could qualify as protected acts – for instance, her attending the WPUK event was not a protected act. In relation to her actual complaint to the University, which could have constituted a protected act, the Court found that she had not suffered a detriment in a way that would activate the protections under the Act (e.g. not getting the conclusion to the disciplinary proceedings that she wanted is not a detriment for the purposes of the Act).


Some Observations


This case is one of several recent ‘lightning rod’ cases to have attracted considerable media attention (and considerable funding from those with gender-critical sympathies). Although the judge, HHJ Ralton, made some questionable comments about the supposed conflict between the “female feminist community” and the “Transgender community” - including repeating gender-critical talking points wholesale and failing to recognise that trans individuals and their allies are just as likely to be subjected to behaviour that crosses the line that he draws between outrage and violence – he emphasised that the case was focused solely on the University’s management of Ms Sanchez’ complaints.


With this in mind, this case is something of a red herring for both the gender-critical movement and for the transgender community and its allies. Ms Sanchez’ comprehensive loss does not move the needle on the gender-critical movement’s attempts to deprive the transgender community of its rights, nor on the efforts of the transgender community and its allies to safeguard those rights (save insofar as it has deprived gender-critical campaigners of a new talking point).


However, the same cannot be said of other cases making their way through the courts. With judgment in Maya Forstater’s Employment Tribunal case outstanding and Allison Bailey’s Employment Tribunal case against Garden Court Chambers and Stonewall commencing this week, there are real giants to overcome beyond distracting ‘windmill’ cases like this one.

[1] Para. 115

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