I am raising funds to pay for legal costs needed for a discrimination case which I have not yet received a hearing for, in or out of court.
I experienced active discrimination and victimization as a woman whilst a full time member of a rowing club which is affiliated to the governing body, hosts major national regattas recognized by the governing body, and who are highly involved in the rowing scene and compete at all levels around the country and internationally, and pride themselves on being 'one of the most prestigious clubs in the UK'.
This club refuse to provide the same level of membership, participation and support to women as they do men. Women train alongside the men in the squad but do not receive coaching and are not supported in entering races, and are told they 'need to be very self sufficient women to train in the squad'. When I raised complaints I was harassed by a member of coaching staff and subsequently removed from training, along with the remaining women in the squad, when I made a complaint. I was victimized by club officials who explained away inappropriate behaviour and the difference in treatment of men and women in the club and I eventually left in August 2016, as many before me have, due to their denial and refusal to address this issue.
This goes against the governing body's guidelines, and the Equality Act 2010, that clubs are not allowed to discriminate against women, as well as a number of other protected characteristics, and yet it is known to the governing body that the club are offering membership on a different level to women as they do men, to the detriment of women in the club, and no action is being taken.
I have not had a hearing since requesting this in July 2016, two months after raising initial complaints of harassment, bullying and long term issues of inequality in the club. Officials actively dismissed and undermined this process, and the governing body failed not only to ensure they followed grievance rules, but actively associated and socialized with them in full knowledge of this. After asking for the chair of my panel to be changed due to conflicts of interest and the chair's failure to comply with grievance rules, as well as contributing to misinformation between the club and the governing body, I then retrieved emails through data requests where I found the then chairman of the club had stated to my panel, while the panel was being setup, that it was his belief I did not want a hearing. Not only this, but after I had informed members of the club in August 2016 I had left and why, he then responded to the panel and the governing body in a personal attack against my character and using an incident of bullying I had experienced to do this, by not only minimizing what had happened, but also creating and embellishing facts he was not witness to and which were profound lies. I found this out in November and subsequently made further complaints against the Chairman of the club and raised a complaint of the club's failure to comply with grievance rules to the governing body, who did not respond.
I had raised a letter before action to the club in October 2016 to protect my legal status, should the grievance process fail or go on too long whereby I was at risk of losing the option of taking the case to court. I did not expect the grievance to fail at such an early stage and which meant I could not progress to the next stage until it was complete, in doing so keeping me locked in this position with no other option.
The club's legal representation falsely informed me that if I raised a letter before action I could not continue with the grievance process, this turned out to be false, however, once I had retrieved the data and made further complaints regarding this, the club shut down my grievance and told me to get a lawyer. I had done nothing which was not within my rights, they used this to abuse and avoid the grievance process, and was an action I was forced to take after the grievance process had taken 5 months to get to a hearing stage due to delays and prevarication on part of those handling my grievance at the club.
I made a complaint to the governing body regarding the club's refusal to continue with the grievance process, but who themselves, since September 2016, had been forcing me to communicate with their lawyers after I had written to the Department of Culture Media and Sport asking for advice and who informed me the governing body were responsible for investigating their affiliated clubs, instigating them to involve their lawyers to communicate with me whilst they freely communicated with club. the governing body's lawyers kept saying the governing body would respond shortly but they never did, and it wasn't until 16th January 2017 I was finally written to by club, who had previously blocked all communication, and was finally willing to offer a hearing, but on lesser terms to what had previously been offered, which was originally to have people independent of my dispute against the club. They were now only offering me a hearing in front of members which I had the right to refuse on the grounds of conflict of interest, but which the governing body's lawyers tried to coerce me into accepting saying 'you would have to prove their was a conflict with members of the club put forward' for which I have very strong evidence that there would have been and the proposition on part of the club was completely inappropriate and inconsistent when members of the club had previously stepped aside so as not to be involved with my grievance due to the obvious conflict of interest.
I refused a hearing on these terms, however, no other option was given to me. By 21st January I was able to obtain legal aid due to unemployment which had gone on as a result of this issue, and had also subsequently caused me to become homeless. They raised the necessary documents for me and I submitted these to the court which I received a Notice of Issue on 26th January from Wandsworth Crown Court. However, shortly after, I lost my legal aid due to obtaining employment but not being able to afford legal fees; one firm quoting 20-40k to take on the case. I continued to try to obtain a hearing however during this period found out via social media that the chairman of the governing body attended a private event at the club and tweeted about this, in full knowledge of what had gone on and the position this had put me in. It was clear to me that the governing body were more interested in maintaining their relationship with the club than holding them to account for not even giving me a hearing, and after everything I had been put through and the consequences of this on my personal and professional life, I subsequently completed the forms on my own and served these on the defendants one month later.
The issue is that due to losing my legal help I was no longer able to sufficiently argue my case and put the right things on paper, this has cost me greatly and my case was subsequently defended and struck out by the court and I was ordered to pay defendant fees upwards of £8000. I am not able to afford this after a year of broken emplyemtn where the stress of this case prevented me from obtaining work, causing a loss of earnings, debt, and subsequently becoming homeless in January 2017. My home and work life is now stable, however, I am still recovering financially and I am unable to pay court fees and for legal advice to litigate my case and to appeal this decision. Due to my employment status I am ineligible for legal aid and free legal services are not able to provide the assistance needed to assist a litigated case. The legal fees I have been quoted to cover this case are £20,000, this does not include court fees which I will try to cover myself where possible.
For me this case is important both personally in defending myself and my rights to be treated as an equal regardless of my gender, but also in holding authorities to account who are not upholding their rules of affiliation, nor acting as governing bodies in ensuring clubs follow their rules. This creates a culture of a lack of accountability which I experienced on numerous occasions at the club over the period of a year, and after I raised my grievance found out the issues I raised are quietly well known within the rowing community, including by the governing body, but quietly accepted due to their 'history' within the sport.
This is completely unacceptable in any area of life, that just because you have been around for a long time it gives you the right to operate outside the rules and negatively impact a large portion of people. Since the club opened its doors to women in 2007, one of the last to do so, on a specific funding grant from the governing body to take on female lightweight rowers, it initially allowed just a few women to train who went on to become elites. However, once this funding ceased they continued to allow women into the club but on lesser terms to men, and each year there is a high turnover of women who arrive and after several months of training realise they won't be supported, become disillusioned or completely demoralised and either leave the club a year later or join a recreational group in the club. You never or rarely see women from the club competing at regattas, even though there are actually as many women in the club as men.
In fighting this case alone I have suffered a great loss both personally and professionally, and my quality of life has suffered with this. Had I had the legal support I needed this would not have been so severe, however, had I been given a hearing to begin with this case would not be in court.