Core guidance: Association

Use this list to make sure you know what equality law means for your association.

Protected characteristics

Make sure you know what is meant by:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity (which includes breastfeeding)
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

These are known as protected characteristics.

View a detailed list of the protected characteristics 

What is unlawful discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms:

  • You must not treat a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) worse than someone else because of a protected characteristic (this is called direct discrimination).

    For example:

    A gentlemen’s club refuses to accept a man’s application for membership or charges him a higher subscription rate because he is Polish. This is direct discrimination because of race.

    A husband and wife are both members of a private members’ club. The man is allowed to use the snooker room but women are banned from using this. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of sex

    A private members’ golf club, which has members of both sexes, requires its female members to play only on certain days while allowing male members to play at all times. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of sex.

    A private members’ club is holding its annual dinner. The spouses of members are also invited to the dinner as guests of the club. The spouse of one member is black and is not invited to the dinner because the organisers believe that other members and their guests will object. This is direct discrimination because of race.

    A person with a severe facial disfigurement applies to join an amateur dramatic society which has 28 members and a constitution where members have to be approved by the committee managing the society. The society rejects the person’s application because of their disfigurement. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of disability.  
  • You must not do something to a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) which has (or would have) a worse impact on them and on other people who share a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not share that characteristic. Unless you can show that what you have done is objectively justified, this will be what is called indirect discrimination. ‘Doing something’ can include making a decision, or applying a rule or way of doing things.

    For example:

    A social club offers all its members a free alcoholic drink every St George’s Day. It does not offer a free non-alcoholic alternative for its non-drinking members, most of whom are Muslim. This is likely to be indirect discrimination against the members because of their religion or belief unless it can be objectively justified.

    You must not treat a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) who is a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected to their disability where you cannot show that what you are doing is objectively justified (this is called discrimination arising from disability). This only applies if you know or could reasonably have been expected to know that the person is a disabled person.

    For example:

    A sports club has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the club bars a guest who is a disabled person who uses an assistance dog, not because of their disability but because they have a dog with them, this would be discrimination arising from disability unless the club can objectively justify what it has done.
  • You must not treat a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) worse than someone else because they are associated with a person who has a protected characteristic.

    For example:

    A member of a private members’ club brings a gay friend as a guest to a social event and is refused service at the bar because of his friend’s sexual orientation. This is discrimination on the basis of the member’s association with his gay friend (who could also make a claim for direct discrimination because of sexual orientation).
  • You must not treat a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) worse than someone else because you incorrectly think they have a protected characteristic (perception).

    For example:

    A member of staff in a private member’s club thinks a woman who is an associate member is a transsexual person and refuses to serve her.

    A committee member of a club thinks a guest looks too young to be drinking alcohol and tells them to leave.
  • You must not treat a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest) badly because they have complained about discrimination or helped someone else complain or done anything to uphold their own or someone else’s equality law rights. This is referred to as victimisation.

    For example:

    A member of a sports club supports another in their claim for discrimination. When the time comes for them to renew their annual membership, they are told their membership will not be renewed.
  • You must not harass a member, associate member or guest (including a potential member or guest).

    For example:

    A member of an association’s management committee is verbally abusive to a disabled guest. The abuse is related to the guest’s disability.  

Note: Even where the behaviour does not come within the equality law definition of harassment (for example, because it is related to religion or belief or sexual orientation), it is still likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because you are giving the service to the person on worse terms than you would give someone who did not have the same protected characteristic.

In addition, you must make reasonable adjustments for disabled people in your selection processes and in how members, associate members and guests (and potential members and guests) access your services.

The aim of reasonable adjustments is to make sure that disabled people are able to join an association and use its services as far as is reasonably possible to the same standard usually offered to non-disabled people.

You do not just have to think about reasonable adjustments for disabled people who are already members, associate members or guests, but also to disabled people who are:

  • seeking or might wish to become members, or
  • are likely to become guests.

This means you must think in advance about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability.

If it is the physical features of a building the association occupies or is using that put disabled people at a substantial disadvantage, the association must either:

  • make reasonable adjustments to avoid the disadvantage, or
  • find a reasonable alternative way of providing members, associate members and guests (and potential members and guests) with the same access to membership and to its services.

Sometimes a reasonable adjustment may involve providing disabled people with an alternative way of using the service, which involves some level of inconvenienc or segregation.  However, the best kind of reasonable adjustment is one which enables disabled people to access the service in much the same way as non-disabled people.  Indeed, if there is an adjustment which can reasonably be made which avoids segregation or inconvenience, then an adjustment which entails segregation or inconvenience may not be considered a reasonable adjustment at all.

Where meetings take place in a member’s or associate member’s home, then reasonable adjustments do not have to be made to physical features to make the home accessible for a member who is a disabled person and for whom the physical features of the meeting place present a barrier to their attending the meeting.

But it may be required as a reasonable adjustment to hold the meeting at an accessible venue.

For example:

A cycling club has 30 members and no premises of its own. Instead members meet in the leader’s house once a year for their AGM. This has no suitable access for a disabled member of the club, an amputee who uses a wheelchair. (The member uses a specially adapted tandem when cycling.) As a reasonable adjustment, the club decides to hold its meetings in a local sports hall which has suitable access.

Even if this is not a reasonable adjustment taking into account all the circumstances of your association, such as your size and resources, you may want to consider whether as a matter of good practice you should change where you meet to an accessible venue.

Reasonable adjustments are not just about physical accessibility, although this is important for some disabled people, but can be about the conditions that are put on membership or the way in which services are offered.

For example:

A gardening club has one member who is blind and two who cannot read standard size print very easily. The club must think about providing information in large print and/or on audio tape for the members as these may be reasonable adjustments for the club to make.

However, an association is not required to make reasonable adjustments that would fundamentally alter its purpose.

For example:

A wine-tasting club would not have to include fruit juice tastings in its activities because someone wants to join who has hepatitis B and cannot tolerate alcohol.


Standards of behaviour

You can still tell your members, associate members and guests what standards of behaviour you want from them. For example, behaving with respect towards your staff and to other members, associate members and guests.
Sometimes, how someone behaves may be linked to a protected characteristic.

If you set standards of behaviour for your customers or clients which have a worse impact on people with a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not have that characteristic, you need to make sure that you can objectively justify what you have done. Otherwise, it will be indirect discrimination.

If you do set standards of behaviour, you must make reasonable adjustments to them for disabled people and avoid discrimination arising from disability. You can read more about reasonable adjustments.

For example:

One young person who is a member of a club for teenagers has autistic spectrum disorder and sometimes misunderstands instructions which are not given in very direct language. This means they sometimes need to be told what to do a second time and in a different way. Club staff accept that the young person is not being uncooperative when they do not always do what they are asked to do the first time. In behaving like this, the club has made a reasonable adjustment to the standards of behaviour it applies. (Incidentally, the club could also think about whether it is a reasonable adjustment for staff to learn how to give more direct instructions.)

If the club did decide that the young person’s behaviour was causing more significant difficulties for other young people or for staff and that they have made all the adjustments it is reasonable for them to make, they would have to objectively justify stopping the young person attending (in other words, withdraw the service from the young person). Otherwise, this is likely to be discrimination arising from disability and/or indirect discrimination because of the young person’s disability.

More information

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