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?

Discrimination

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.

Harassment

The Act prohibits service providers from harassing a person requiring a service and where a service is provided the Act prohibits harassment by service provider during the course of the provision of the service.

Harassment occurs where a person is subjected to unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating his dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him. This can include unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex.

Racist comments made to or in front of a customer will, for example, amount to harassment.

Victimisation

The Act prohibits service providers from victimising a person requiring a service by not providing the person with the service. It also prohibits service providers, in the course of providing a service from victimising a person as to the terms on which the service is provided, termination of the service and the subjection of a person to any other detriment.

Victimisation occurs where a person is subjected to a detriment by reason of the fact that he has (or it is believed that he has or may) carried out one of the following acts:

  • brought or given evidence or information in proceedings brought under the Act;

  • the doing of something for the purposes of or in connection with the Act.

  • made an allegation that a person has contravened the Act.

However, the giving of false evidence or information, or the making of a false allegation is not protected by the Act if it is given or made in bad faith.

What obligations does the Act place on service providers?

The Act also places an obligation on service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people so that they can access the service provider’s

goods, facilities and services.

Making reasonable adjustments may involve a restaurant producing a large-print menu for customers with sight impairments or a business making changes to their premises to accommodate wheel chair users.

How is the Act enforced?

Where a provision of the Act is contravened proceedings can be brought through the Civil Courts. A wide range of remedies are available to the Civil Courts including the power to award compensation for injured feelings.

Normally claims brought in the Civil Courts will have to be brought within 6 years of the date of the act to which the claim relates.