How does the Equality Act 2010 affect businesses who sell goods and supply services?

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits businesses who provide services to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) from discriminating against, harassing and victimising certain classes of persons. The Act also places an obligation on such businesses (referred to as “service providers”) to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.

Who is protected by the Act?

People who access goods, facilities and services possessing the following “protected characteristics” are protected by the Act:

  • Age – persons under the age of 18 are not protected by the provisions relating to service providers and the provisions of the Act relating to those over the age of 18 have yet to come into force;

  • disability;

  • gender reassignment;

  • pregnancy and maternity;

  • race ;

  • religion or belief;

  • sex;

  • sexual orientation.

In addition, except in the case of pregnancy and maternity, the Act also protects

People who are unfairly treated because they are wrongly perceived to have a particular characteristic (or are treated as though they had it) or because they associate with someone who has one of the above characteristics.

What does the Act prohibit?


The Act prohibits service providers from discriminating against a person requiring a service by not providing the person with the service. Where a service is provided the Act prohibits discrimination by service provider during the course of the provision of the service. This includes discrimination as to the terms on which the service is provided, termination of the service and the subjection of a person to any other detriment.

Both direct and indirect discrimination is prohibited by the Act.

Direct discrimination takes place where a person treats another person who has a protected characteristic less favourably than he or she treats or would treat others not possessing the protected characteristic.

Under the Act it is unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a woman because she is breastfeeding. Service providers should, therefore, ensure that women are able to breastfeed should they so wish.

Indirect discrimination occurs where a provision, criterion or practice is applied which is discriminatory in relation to protected characteristic. This includes conduct which is applied or would apply to persons who do not share the characteristic in question and conduct which puts or would put a person possessing a protected characteristic at a particular disadvantage. For example, a policy that only offers appointments by telephone will indirectly discriminate against deaf people as it will be harder for them to make an appointment.

Conduct which can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim is, however, permitted. For example, it will be legitimate in some circumstances for service providers to provide single sex services such as toilets or changing rooms, although in such circumstances service providers should exercise caution so as to avoid discrimination of transsexuals. It is also permissible for businesses to target their goods, facilities or services to a particular group provided that such targeting is justified. Where the sole aim is to reduce costs it is unlikely that the conduct will be viewed as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

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For more information on:

  • Harassment
  • Victimisation
  • What obligations does the Act place on service providers?
  • How is the Act enforced?