A Sydney barber is currently awaiting trial by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) after refusing to cut a young girl's hair. The girl's mother claims that the barber breached anti-discrimination laws by refusing her service. Is it legal for a business to refuse services based on sex?
According to the report by 9 News, the owner of a Hunter's Hill barber shop, Sam Rahim, refused to cut the hair of a young girl shortly before Christmas last year. He claims that he politely refused the young girl and her mother service and explained that there were several hairdressers within short walking distance that could help them.
With this, the woman stormed out and filed a complaint against Rahim and the barbershop for discriminating against her daughter, based on her sex. Rahim also claimed that he did not offer to cut the girl's hair because he is not qualified to do so but this is refuted by her mother.
It's a story that we've seen a number of times before. Back in March, a Darwin-based female barbershop owner also defended her right to refuse service to women and a Brisbane barbershop that had refused service to a female client because of a lease agreement had the lease amended to allow female clientele into the store.
The law states that any business can refuse service to whomever they wish as long as they aren't in breach of any anti-discrimination laws. Conversely, the HREOC protects customers based on their age, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status and discriminating against these people is in breach of parliamentary acts at both a federal and state level.
In this case, where the barber has refused to serve a woman, the relevant act is the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.
There are also several circumstances, according to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science where discriminating may be allowed under anti-discrimination laws. One example they provide is written as so:
When you’re acting in a way that is intended to reduce a disadvantage experienced by people with an attribute that is covered under the law. For example, providing specialised counselling services only for young people or specialised health services for women.
Notably, businesses can also apply for exemptions via the HREOC which allows them to 'discriminate' based on gender if they can provide a good reason for it. State based authorities also allow exemptions based on, for instance, personal welfare - and this is why establishments such as female-only gyms are allowed to have only female members and staff.
When applying for those exemptions, the HREOC considers whether or not the exemption is necessary and what terms, conditions and limitations to impose when granting the exemption.
For Mr. Rahim's barbershop? If he is unqualified to cut a woman's hair, I think that he is less likely to be reprimanded by the HREOC. However, if he cannot demonstrate that, the anti-discrimination laws are pretty solid. However, as we've seen in past disputes with gender-specific barbershops, it's all a little murky.