Remembering a tireless campaigner who changed the course of the law

The use of the word ‘landmark’ to describe a new legal decision has become so clichéd it has lost its meaning and gravitas.

Some decisions are, of course, worthy of the title, but most, on careful reflection, are merely of significant interest. That itself doesn’t stop many law firms and their PRs sending press releases with ‘landmark judgment’ written in big bold letters. A few minutes of close inspection can leave me feeling I’ve been duped.

I mention this, not to criticise the hard work of the many lawyers or PR reps who make our job as journalists that little bit easier, but because I was recently reminded of a case that was truly a landmark.

In 2002 Christine Goodwin took the UK to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the groundbreaking cases of Christine Goodwin v UK no. 28957/95.

Christine complained about the lack of legal recognition in the UK of her post-operative sex and about the legal status of transsexuals in the UK. She complained, in particular, about her treatment in relation to employment, social security and pensions and an inability to marry, relying on articles 8,12, 13 and 14 of the Convention in her applications to the court in Strasbourg.

Christine claimed she had faced sexual harassment at work during and following her gender reassignment. Specifically, she experienced difficulties relating to her national insurance (NI) contributions. Under UK law at the time, she was still a man, and had to continue to pay NI contributions until the age of 65. If she had been recognised as a woman, she would have ceased to be liable at the age of 60.

She had to make special arrangements to continue paying her NI contributions directly herself to avoid questions being raised by her employers about the anomaly. She also alleged that because she kept the same NI number meant her employer had been able to discover she previously worked for them under another name and gender, with resulting embarrassment and humiliation.

The judgment delivered in the Strasbourg court unanimously held that the UK’s failure to recogniseChristine’s new identity in law breached her rights to respect for privacy and her right to marry under the ECHR.

As a result of this, and another important case, I. v. UK, no. 25680/94, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 was brought into force giving legal recognition to transsexual people in their acquired gender.

I covered Christine’s case a couple of years ago – following the news that primary school teacher, Lucy Meadows, who had been transitioning from male to female, committed suicide after the press got wind of her new life.

This week I received an email from Christine’s daughter, Clare, who told me her mother had passed away after a long illness in December 2014. She was 77.

Few people can claim to have been instrumental in turning back a tide of injustice of any form. Whichever way you look at it, Christine did just that, paving the way for many trans people to live the lives they deserve. Christine and her case are the very definition of a landmark.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 29 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission