Does equality law apply to my organisation?

What is an ‘association’?

In equality law, an ‘association’ is any group of 25 or more members which has rules to control how someone becomes a member, involving a genuine selection process.

The rules may be written down, like a constitution, or may be unwritten.

For example:

A club says that anyone who wants to join must be nominated by one or more existing members as part of the joining process.

A society says that anyone who wants to join must be approved by a majority of other members before they can become a membe

If they have more than 25 members, both these organisations are likely to be associations in equality law.

It does not matter if the association is run for profit or not, or if it is legally incorporated or not.

Associations can include:

  • Organisations established to promote the interests of their members, such as an association of disabled people with a particular impairment or condition, or a club for parents.
  • Private clubs, including sports clubs, clubs for ex-service personnel, working men’s clubs and clubs for people with particular interests such as fishing, music, gardening or wine tasting.
  • Young people’s organisations, such as the Scouts, the Guides, the Woodcraft Folk or Young Farmers’ Clubs.
  • Organisations like the Rotary Club, the Inner Wheel Club or the Grand Lodges of Freemasons.

This list is for illustration only and many more types of associations are covered by the law.

Political parties are also associations, but you can find information about how equality law applies to them in the Equality and Human Rights Commission guide Your Rights to Equality: Parliaments, politicians and political parties. 

When is a club or society not an ‘association’?

When it has no form of selection to decide who becomes a member

Organisations which require people to take out membership to use their facilities or services or to belong to a group but where there is no form of selection are not associations in equality law – even if they are called ‘club’, ‘society’ or ‘association’. Usually a fee is paid either at the time of joining/on an ongoing basis or to use the services (or both).

For example:

  • A video club where someone becomes a ‘member’ in order to rent films.
  • A gym or health club where people pay a joining fee and/or monthly subscription to get access to the exercise facilities.
  • A football team supporters’ club where an annual ‘membership fee’ is paid in return for receiving information about the team.
  • A group of supporters attached to a theatre (sometimes called ‘Friends of’ the theatre) who receive information and access to special events and activities in exchange for an annual membership fee.

Equality law still applies to these organisations, but in a different way. If you run an organisation like this, you should read the Equality and Human Rights Commission guide What Equality Law Means for You as a: Business providing goods, facilities and services to the public.

It is possible to be both an association and a service provider.

For example:

A private golf club with rules regulating membership will be an association when it is dealing with its members and their guests, but a service provider if it opens its golf course, café and shop to members of the public on certain days of the week or when spectators attend to watch club competitions. If someone does not have to be a club member to take part in a competition, then the golf club is also providing competitors with a service.

If you are both an association and a service provider, the question you need to ask then is whether in the situation you are thinking about your services are provided to the public or to your members, associate members and guests (or potential members and guests).

If it is your members, associate members and guests (or potential members and guests), this is the right guide for you to read.

If it is the public, you should read instead the Equality and Human Rights Commission guide What Equality Law Means for You as a: Business providing goods, facilities and services to the public.

When it has no formal rules or fewer than 25 members

Clubs which have no formal rules governing membership or whose membership is less than 25 are not associations in equality law.

For example:

  • A book-reading club run by a group of friends.
  • A walking club which anyone who finds out about it can belong to.
  • A choir which is open to anyone who works at a particular place but where no approval is required to join.

This sort of informal ‘club’ is not covered by equality law at all.

When it is a trade union or professional organisation

Trade unions and professional organisations and qualifications bodies are not associations in equality law; instead, they are covered by their own special provisions under equality law. Guidance to help you if you are running one of these organisations will be published in the future.

What is a member, associate member or guest?


A member is someone who has been admitted to the association by its rules on membership.

Membership covers full membership, associate membership, temporary membership, student membership and day membership.

Potential members

A potential member is anyone who is not currently a member of an association but who may be eligible to be a member or who is actively seeking to become one.

Associate members

An associate member is someone who is not a member but who, according to the association’s rules, has some or all of the rights as a member because they are a member of another association. 

For example, becoming a member of one club automatically entitles someone to associate membership of another club as part of their membership.

A person cannot be a ‘potential associate member’ because they are automatically an associate member by virtue of their membership of another association.


A guest is someone who is not a member but who is invited by the association or by one of its members to enjoy or participate in some benefit of the association.

Potential guest

A potential guest is someone who is likely to become a guest, is seeking to become one or would be one if it were not for unlawful discrimination by the association.

For example:

A friend of a member is a guest if they are invited to attend a social event by the association. They are also a guest if it is the member who invites them. The friend is a potential guest if the only thing that stops them being a guest is that the association has a rule that certain people are not allowed to be guests because of a particular protected characteristic they have.

More information

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