Businesses have a duty not to discriminate against members of the public when providing goods and services

Businesses have a duty not to discriminate against members of the public when providing goods and services

 All businesses that supply goods, facilities or services to members of the public, whether or not for payment, have a duty not to discriminate against members of the public when providing such goods, services or facilities. Since 1 October 2010, these rules have been set out in the Equality Act 2010. As service providers, businesses are responsible for the acts of their employees and agents.

What are services, goods and facilities?

The meaning of the words “services, goods or facilities” are not defined in the Equality Act 2010 and are likely to be interpreted widely by the courts. They can include:

  • Access to any place that members of the public are permitted to enter (for example, pubs or restaurants).
  • Accommodation in a hotel, boarding house or other similar establishment.
  • Facilities for education (including privately run nursery schools or pre-schools).
  • Facilities for entertainment, recreation or refreshment (for example, cinemas or theatres).
  • The services of any profession or trade.

What are the protected characteristics?

  • Members of the public who access a business’ goods, services or facilities are protected from being discriminated against on the basis of certain characteristics, known as protected characteristics. Members of the public are protected both when requesting a service, good or facility and during the course of being provided with it. The protected characteristics are currently:
    • sex;
    • race;
    • gender reassignment;
    • disability;
    • sexual orientation;
    • pregnancy and maternity; and
    • religion or belief.
  • Age is also a protected characteristic. The ban on age discrimination in the provision of goods and services came into force on 1 October 2012.  However, there are a number of key exceptions to this new rule where it will remain lawful to treat people differently on the basis of age, for example age based concessions and age restricted sales.

What is prohibited?

  • Direct discrimination. A business must not treat a person worse than someone else on the basis of a protected characteristic. For example, a nightclub charges a higher price of entry to a man where the service provided to a woman is otherwise exactly the same.
  • Indirect discrimination. A business must not apply a policy or procedure to everyone which would particularly disadvantage a group of people with a protected characteristic. For example, a shop decides to apply a “no hats or headwear” rule to customers. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every customer, Sikhs, Jews and Rastafarians, who may cover their heads as part of their religion, will not be able to use the shop. Unless the shop can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.
  • Harassment. A business must not harass a member of the public. Harassment is any unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic or of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a member of the public’s dignity or creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.
  • Victimisation. A business must not treat someone badly or victimise them because they have:
    • complained about discrimination;
    • helped someone else complain; or
    • done anything to uphold their own or someone else’s rights under discrimination law.
  • Discrimination arising from disability. A business must not treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something arising from or in consequence of their disability, where the business cannot show that what it was doing is objectively justified.
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments. Businesses have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for all disabled people, whether it has disabled customers or not. The business should review how accessible its services are to disabled people, rather than waiting for a disabled person to encounter a problem. Examples of steps it may be reasonable to take include:
    • a solicitors’ firm lending a tape recorder to a disabled client who cannot communicate in writing or travel to the firm’s office, so they can dictate their instructions and witness statement; or
    • a utility company providing a quarterly bill in alternative formats (such as Braille or large print).

Breaching discrimination law

Proceedings for discrimination must be brought in the County Court within 6 months of the date of the act to which the claim relates. The County Court may award damages by way of compensation for injured feelings, aggravated or exemplary damages as well as non-financial remedies such as a declaration.

How to prevent claims for discrimination

Businesses are more likely to be able to comply with their duties and prevent their employees from discriminating against service users or customers if they take the following steps:

  • establish a policy to ensure equality of access to and enjoyment of their services by potential service users or customers from all groups in society;
  • communicate the policy to all staff, ensuring that they know that it is unlawful to discriminate when they are providing services;
  • train all staff, including those not providing a direct service to the public, to understand the policy, the meaning of the equality in this context and their legal obligations;
  • monitor the implementation and effectiveness of the policy;
  • address acts of discrimination by staff as part of disciplinary rules and procedures;
  • ensure that performance management systems address equality and non-discrimination;
  • maintain an easy to use, well publicised complaints procedure;
  • review practices to ensure that they do not unjustifiably disadvantage particular groups; and
  • consult customers, staff and organisations representing groups who share protected characteristics about the quality and equality of their services and how they could be made more inclusive.

More information

If you have any questions on the issues raised in this article, please contact Claire Berry on 01480 442040 or email

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