Scottish government launches legal challenge against Westminster’s blocking of gender reform bill

Humza Yousaf and Rishi Sunak

The Scottish government has confirmed that it will take legal action against the UK government’s efforts to block its gender recognition reform bill.

SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf confirmed that his government will push ahead with a legal challenge on Wednesday (12 April).

Westminster had previously used Section 35 of the Scotland Act to block the legislation, which would allow trans people in Scotland to self-declare their own gender.

In a statement, Scottish social justice secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said the Scottish government will lodge a petition for a judicial review of the use of Section 35.

“The Gender Recognition Reform Bill was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Scottish parliament, with support from members of all parties,” Somerville said.

“The use of Section 35 is an unprecedented challenge to the Scottish parliament’s ability to legislate on clearly devolved matters and it risks setting a dangerous constitutional precedent.

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Placards promoting reform of gender recognition laws outside the Scottish Parliament, as inside MSPs prepare to debate the Gender Recognition (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1, on October 27, 2022.
Placards promoting reform of gender recognition laws outside the Scottish Parliament, as inside MSPs prepare to debate the Gender Recognition (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1, on October 27, 2022. (Ken Jack/Getty)

“In seeking to uphold the democratic will of the parliament and defend devolution, Scottish ministers will lodge a petition for a judicial review of the secretary of state for Scotland’s decision.”

Somerville said the UK government had given “no advance warning” of its plans to block the bill under Section 35, nor did they ask for “any amendments to the bill throughout its nine month passage through parliament”.

“Our offers to work with the UK government on potential changes to the bill have been refused outright by the secretary of state, so legal challenge is our only reasonable means of resolving this situation.

“It is important to have clarity on the interpretation and scope of the Section 35 power and its impact on devolution. These matters should be legally tested in the courts.”

Scottish gender bill would introduce ‘simpler and fairer’ system

LGBTQ+ advocacy groups welcomed the news.

Colin Macfarlane, director of nations at Stonewall, said the bill “simply seeks to make the process for legally recognising a trans man or trans woman’s gender more respectful and straightforward”.

The SNP's new leader Humza Yousaf (centre).
LGBTQ+ advocates, allies and politicians have welcomed Humza Yousaf’s victory as the new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

He added: “The government’s decision to block Scotland’s bill was an unprecedented move and made clear that they see trans people as a threat to be contained rather than people to be treated with dignity and respect.

“We hope that the legal process concludes swiftly and that governments of the UK focus their attention on positive strategies that support LGBTQ+ communities to thrive.”

Vic Valentine, manager of Scottish Trans, said the bill would introduce “a simpler and fairer” system for trans men and women to be legally recognised in their correct gender.

“The bill covers matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and its consequences were considered by MSPs in great detail,” Valentine said.

“For the UK government to seek to block the Scottish democratic process in this way, simply because they disagree with the welcome decision the Scottish parliament has made to improve trans people’s lives, is unacceptable.

“Other countries all over the world have introduced similar laws, with the only impact being a positive one – on the tiny number of trans people who need legal recognition of how we live our lives, as everyone is entitled to under international human rights law.”

The news was also welcomed by Scottish politicians. SNP MP John Nicolson tweeted: “Excellent. We must defend Scotland’s parliament and our democracy.”

Trans rights activists hold a demonstration in September in Edinburgh. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

Maggie Chapman, equalities spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “Trans rights are human rights and it is absolutely right for the Scottish government to challenge this shameful decision. It is a vital step for trans rights and equality, and also for our democracy.”

She added: “Westminster is waging a sustained campaign of disinformation as part of a wider attack on our trans communities. The UK Government is threatening to roll back on basic rights that have existed for many years.

“If the Tories get away with overriding our parliament on such a clearly devolved area then it will set a dangerous precedent that could be used time and again. That is why everyone who believes in equality or devolution must support this challenge and oppose the Tory veto.

“It is shocking that we have been put in this position, but we cannot allow the rights and lives of trans people to be used as a political pawn in Westminster’s reactionary culture war.”