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Ban on learner driver permits for asylum seekers not discrimination, court rules

The ruling overturns a previous finding in favour of people living in direct

The ruling was made in the Circuit Court and concerned a woman in Direct Provision.
The ruling was made in the Circuit Court and concerned a woman in Direct Provision.
Image: PA Images

A BAN ON issuing learner driver permits to asylum seekers does not amount to racial discrimination, according to the Circuit Court, in a ruling which overturns a previous finding in favour of people living in Direct Provision.

Delivering judgment in Dublin Circuit Civil Court today, Judge John O’Connor ruled that the National Driving Licence Service (NDLS), which is run by the Road Safety Authority (RSA), does not discriminate against asylum seekers on account of race.

Judge O’Connor said the licensing agency applies existing Irish law on the licensing of drivers which requires evidence of permanent permission to reside in the State.

The case concerned a single mother who has lived continuously in Ireland since 2015 when she applied for asylum. Her commute from a rural Direct Provision centre in the south of Ireland to work as a housekeeper in Dublin involves a lengthy journey by bus and rail.

The woman, who holds a full license in her country of origin and who has been offered a car by her current employers if she gets a full license, applied for a learner permit in October 2018 with a view to obtaining better work opportunities and childcare facilities.

However, the NDLS told her she would need to provide evidence of full or “permanent” residency permission which, by virtue of being an asylum seeker, she could not provide.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission took her case to the Workplace Relations Commission which found that the RSA indirectly discriminated against the woman on grounds of race. The WRC ruled that the woman be given a learner permit immediately and awarded her €5,000 compensation.

However, the RSA successfully appealed the WRC’s decision to the Circuit Court today, which found that the WRC “went substantially beyond its remit” under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015.

In his judgment overturning the WRC’s decision, Judge O’Connor said the case was not about the right to a driving license. It was about alleged discrimination in the course of the woman’s application for a learner permit to drive.

The woman’s lawyers argued that the RSA interpreted the licensing regulations in a “discriminatory manner” and that the permanent residency requirement was an “additional burden which adversely affects” people from a different ethnic background.

Lawyers for the RSA argued that the woman was not “normally resident” in the State because she is an asylum seeker.

Judge O’Connor said the woman’s case was not just a challenge to the regulations on the licensing of drivers but was, in effect, a challenge to the law governing the issuing of driving licenses and the requirement to provide evidence of residency entitlement in Ireland.

She enjoyed certain rights as resident in the State for the purpose of making an application for asylum. But her rights were not the same as those enjoyed by citizens in Ireland or persons granted permission to enter and reside in the State as immigrants, the judge stated.

While there were “legitimate political concerns” for the rights of asylum seekers, these were matters for the Oireachtas to “debate and legislate on”, the judge said.

He said the woman and her employer deserved “great credit” in how they had managed her employment despite the differences in residence and work locations.

He said he did not accept that the woman’s employment was “substantially affected” by the lack of an Irish driving license, although travelling to work resulted in a “substantial inconvenience” for her.

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Allowing the RSA’s appeal, he said the decision of the WRC went “substantially beyond its remit” under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015.

He made no order in relation to legal costs.

Counsel for the woman, David Fennelly BL, opposed the application for legal costs on grounds that the case raised important issues and that the woman was not a “person of means”.

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Ruaidhrí Giblin and Ray Managh

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