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

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) prohibits businesses who provide services to 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 EqA 2010?

People who access goods, facilities and services possessing the following ‘protected characteristics’ are protected by EqA 2010:

  • age (for people aged 18 or over);
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or belief (not harassment);
  • sex;
  • sexual orientation (not harassment).

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 EQA 2010 prohibit?

Discrimination

The Act prohibits discrimination by service providers during the course of the provision of a 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 they treat or would treat others not possessing the protected characteristic. This would arise, for example, where a customer is refused service in a shop because of their ethnic origin.

Indirect discrimination occurs where a provision, criterion or practice is applied which is discriminatory in relation to a 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 situations service providers should be careful to avoid discrimination of transsexuals. It is also permissible for businesses to target their goods, facilities or services to a particular group provided such targeting is justified. Where the sole aim is to reduce costs it is unlikely the conduct will be viewed as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Harassment

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 their dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. This would include, for example, unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or racist comments made to or in front of a customer.

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 they have (or it is believed that they have 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 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 wheelchair users.

How is the Act enforced?

Where a provision of the Act is contravened, proceedings can be brought through the civil courts where a wide range of remedies are available, including the power to award compensation for injured feelings.

Normally claims brought in the civil courts will have to be brought within six years of the date of the act to which the claim relates.