A woman from Hong Kong and her husband of Chinese descent have been awarded £2,500 by a court after encountering a “degrading” environment while buying a used car in Northern Ireland.
Kin Hung Wong and his wife, Lai Ka Law, claimed racial harassment and received the backing of the Equality Commission.
The couple were asked several times by sales staff at John Mulholland Motors to have their conversation in English during the July 2017 transaction, the commission said.
In delivering his judgment, Judge Philip Gilpin said he was satisfied that the way staff dealt with the couple had “created a degrading and humiliating environment”.
Following the case, Mr Wong said: “We were interrupted and told to speak English because we are in the UK.
“The atmosphere in which this transaction took place was strained and my wife was so distressed she was reduced to tears and no one apologised to her.
“I was unable to make a complaint to Mulholland’s on the day because nobody senior was available. So I’m glad that we won our case.”
Mr Wong works in IT and is of Chinese descent. He is from Northern Ireland and English is his first language.
His wife’s first language is Cantonese and she is from Hong Kong.
He conducted his business with the family-run car sales firm in English throughout but discussed matters with his wife in Cantonese so she could fully understand.
Mr Wong found the way the sales staff dealt with them, asking them several times to speak only in English, was “rude and aggressive” and said there was no handshake upon completion of the deal, the commission said.
The discussion followed their decision not to trade in their old car with the company, which increased their balance payment from that originally agreed but not the actual price.
As it was a joint purchase and a large amount of money, to make sure she fully understood the change and what they were signing up to, Mr Wong discussed it with Ms Law in Cantonese.
The couple alleged that the sales person believed incorrectly that Ms Law could understand the details if they were told to her in English, despite them explaining that she was unable to fully understand if they only used English to communicate.
The legal case was dealt with at the County Court in Antrim.
A statement from John Mulholland Motors said it was disappointed with the court’s findings and was giving further consideration to this week’s judgement.
“The business has been trading for over 30 years and in that time has welcomed literally hundreds of thousands of visitors to our showrooms.
“John Mulholland Motors pride themselves in consistently delivering excellent customer service to customers from all backgrounds and nationalities in a welcoming environment. This is borne out by numerous industry awards.
“We are an equal opportunities employer and are proud to employ happy staff from a wide spectrum of backgrounds.
“This case, as funded by the Equality Commission, denotes the first time in the company’s history that such a claim has been brought against the business, the outcome being £2,500 awarded for injury to feelings.”
As a financially regulated business, the business manager has responsibility to ensure that customers fully understand all the financial implications of any proposed transaction, the firm added.
“We have procedures in place to support customers who do not have English as a first language and policies around how we recognise and accommodate all vulnerable customers.”
Dr Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, noted the law said it was unlawful for a service provider to provide a service of a lower or worse standard to individuals on the grounds of their colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin.
“We recommend that service providers work to ensure that their premises are a welcoming and harmonious space for their workers and customers alike.
“Part of this would include allowing the Wongs to discuss their joint financial business as a couple in the language that suits them both, as the rest of the business was conducted in English by Mr Wong.”