Introduction to Discrimination Law

The law outlaws discrimination on a number of grounds. There are currently a number of Acts of Parliament which deal with discrimination on different grounds. A single Act encompassing all the current legislation on discrimination is envisaged to be passed in the future.

However, until such a law is enacted we are left with a number of Acts of Parliament, each of which deals with a particular aspect of discrimination.

Current Discrimination Law

The following Acts currently outlaw discrimination on the following grounds:

  • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of Sex, Marriage, and gender reassignment.
  • The Sexual Orientation Regulations 2003 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is defined in regulation 2(1): ‘a sexual orientation towards persons of the same sex; persons of the opposite sex; or persons of the same sex and of the opposite sex’. The regulations do not deal with specific forms of sexual practice or conduct.
  • The Race Relations Act 1976 outlaws discrimination on racial grounds. Racial grounds are defined as colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origins. The Commission for Racial Equality can provide further advice on how to respond when faced with this kind of discrimination.
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 deals with discrimination against disabled people.
  • Religion or Belief Regulations 2003 protects people from discrimination due to their religion or belief. Religion or belief is defined as ‘any religion, religious belief, or similar philosophical belief’.
  • The Part-time Workers Regulations 2000. Regulation 5(1): ‘A part-time worker has the right not to be treated by his employer less favourably than the employer treats a comparable full-time worker….’
  • The Employment Act 2002 and the Fixed-term Employees Regulations 2002 attempts to protect employees on fixed term contracts from suffering inferior treatment to those who are on permanent contracts.
  • The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992) [ss 137, 146 and 152-3] deals with discrimination related to trade union membership or activity or non-membership.
  • The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 give effect to the EU Equal Treatment Framework Directive (2000/78) as regards age.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is a general piece of legislation which protects people against harassment, whatever the grounds.

Discrimination law operates on two fronts:

  • strategic level – a standing Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is responsible under the Equality Act 2006 s1 for overseeing the legislation, recommending improvement, investigating discriminatory practices, assisting individuals and generally working towards equality of opportunity.
  • individual level – a worker can complain if he or she feels that they are the subject of unlawful discrimination.


There are very few. In the employment field, where this legislation is significant, for example there are no hours of work or length of employment qualifications needed before a claimant can use the legislation. However, discrimination can be lawful if sex, race, religion etc is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement. These provisions are quite specific and vary according to the particular ground. They tend to be interpreted narrowly by the courts.

The influence of European Union law

General influence

Member States of the European Union must give effect to EU law and they must also interpret their own law in the light of EU law.

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For more information on:

  • Influence upon discrimination law
  • Forms of discrimination
  • Direct discrimination
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Victimisation
  • Summary of Discrimination Law