A Muslim teaching assistant lost her fight to wear a veil in class yesterday. But she vowed to take her case to the European Court, landing the taxpayer with a £250,000 bill.
Defiant Aishah Azmi refused to accept an employment tribunal’s decision that she was not harassed or discriminated against on religious grounds for wearing the controversial niqab. Flanked by her lawyers after the ruling was announced, 24-year-old Mrs Azmi said she would exhaust the legal process in Britain before heading to the European Court to press her case.
Her threat came after she was awarded £1,100 for “injury to feelings” by the tribunal which accepted her claim that she had been victimised. Mrs Azmi had been employed at the school since September last year as a bilingual support worker, but she was suspended in February by education bosses who said children needed to see her face to understand what she was saying.
Specialist employment lawyers warned last night that the classroom rebel’s vow to go to Brussels would mean a taxpayer-funded bonanza for lawyers while the case took years to rumble through the legal system.
Mrs Azmi, who is suspended on full pay from her £15,000-a-year job at Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorks, will benefit from having her lawyers paid through legal aid.
Earlier this year, her lawyers battled with counsel for her employer, Kirklees Council, in a five-day hearing. The total costs for legal bills so far could top £50,000.
The next stage will be to take the argument to the employment appeals tribunal, where costs will be repeated and possibly increased.
The stakes will be raised massively if Mrs Azmi, originally from Cardiff, fails to gain a decision at the appeals tribunal, when her lawyers will seek leave to take her case to the Court of Appeal.
The lengthy hearings and appeals that would follow could easily cost £50,000, a bill that would be matched if she were to be granted permission to go to the House of Lords.
Only when that remedy has been exhausted will she then take her case to Brussels, where the European Court of Justice will ensure another big pay day for a regiment of lawyers.
“If she goes all the way to the European Court then the total costs in this case could be very large, it would not be unreasonable to say £250,000,” said employment lawyer Clive Howard.
Note the hypocrisy of the person involved.
Another legal expert added: “It’s not unusual in these types of cases to find something to hang on a victimisation claim. It just opens the door to take a case like this even further.”
Yesterday’s award of £1,100 by the Leeds tribunal was made because of victimisation in the way her case was handled by education chiefs.
Last night it emerged that senior staff at the school, backed by Kirklees Council, had monitored the negative impact of Mrs Azmi wearing a veil before suspending her.
Her legal team last night warned Prime Minister Tony Blair to “keep his mouth shut” as they revealed they had applied for legal aid. Because the test case has already been confirmed as being “in the wider public interest” by legal aid chiefs Mrs Azmi’s lawyer Nick Whittingham said: “It is virtually certain that we will get it.”
The teaching assistant must now lodge her appeal while continuing to claim her salary despite having no intention of returning to school unless she can wear the veil in class.
The case sparked immediate controversy and attracted comments from Mr Blair, who backed her suspension. He said the wearing of a veil was a “mark of separation” and made some “outside the community feel uncomfortable”.
Race Minister Phil Woolas demanded that Mrs Azmi be sacked, accusing her of “denying the right of children to a full education”.
That brought condemnation from Mrs Azmi and support from her lawyer Mr Whittingham, who said: “I support her view that ministers and the Prime Minister should not be commenting on matters like this.
“I hope ministers can learn from this and maybe kept their mouths shut in future and stick to broader issues and not focus on individual cases to the detriment of justice.”
During a press conference, in which only her eyes were visible, Mrs Azmi said: “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens, and politicians need to recognise that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts.
“Integration requires people like me to be in the workplace so that people can see that we are not to be feared or mistrusted. Sadly the intervention of ministers in my case, against the ministerial code, makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work.
“I will continue to uphold my religious beliefs and urge Muslims to engage in dialogue with the wider community despite the attacks that are being made upon them.”
Kirklees Council’s cabinet member for education Jim Dodds, who last week vowed Mrs Azmi would not be allowed to return to school in the veil even if they lost the tribunal, said: “As an employer Kirklees Council actively promotes and encourages equality and diversity and respects the wishes of employees to express their religious and cultural beliefs.
“The education of the children is of paramount importance and it is disappointing that the school was unable to reach a compromise with Mrs Azmi in this case. However, the tribunal has agreed that the action taken was correct.”
Labour MP Shahid Malik, who represents Mrs Azmi’s home town of Dewsbury, said the ruling was “quite clearly a victory for common sense”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “One of the things that makes this country the greatest place in the world to live is that you can wear a veil, a miniskirt, an afro haircut and it’s fine. But her rights are subordinate to the rights of children and their need for the best possible education they can get.”He urged her to drop her appeal.
The tribunal dismissed Mrs Azmi’s claims that the school directly discriminated against her on the grounds of her religious belief, indirectly discriminated against her by applying a practice that put her at a disadvantage due to her religious belief or that she was subjected to harassment due to her beliefs.
The tribunal also found that the Kirklees Council had failed to comply with grievance procedures and awarded a 10 per cent increase on the £1,000 sum for injury to feelings.