Was what happened against equality law?

New guidance

The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. The information on this page reflects changes to the law.

Write down what happened as soon as you can after it happened, or tell someone else about it so they can write it down. Put in as much detail as you can about who was involved and what was said or done. Remember, the problem will sometimes be that something was not done.

For example:

If you are a disabled person and you asked for a reasonable adjustment which was not made.

If someone did not change a decision they had made or stop applying a rule or way of doing things and this had a worse impact on you and other people with the same protected characteristic (indirect discrimination).

Read the rest of this guide. Does what happened sound like any of the things we say a person or organisation must or must not do?

Sometimes it is difficult to work out if what happened is against equality law. You need to show that your protected characteristics played a part in what happened. The rest of this guide tells you more about what this means for the different types of unlawful discrimination or for harassment or victimisation.

If you think you need more information from the person or organisation before deciding what to do, then you can use the questions procedure.

If you feel you need to get more advice on whether what happened was against equality law, you will find information on places where you can get help in Further sources of information.  

Complaining directly to the person or organisation

Whether you contact the person or organisation direct will depend on what happened, how badly it has affected you, who it is possible to contact and how it is possible to contact them.

Even if you don’t at this stage get advice from one of the places we suggest or from a lawyer, you can always ask a friend or someone else you know to help you work out what to write or say.

Follow any instructions the person or organisation gives you about how to comment, complain or give feedback. For example, they may ask you to contact:

  • a special telephone number or email address or postal address, or
  • a particular person.

If you’re not sure if there is a special way to complain, ask someone at the organisation how you can make a comment on their service or get someone else to ask for you. Or you could look at any information you have about them, like a leaflet or a website.

If it is just one person providing the service (for example, someone running a small business), then, if you decide to try to sort it out with them first, your only option is for you or someone else to contact them direct.

When you get in touch, try to stick to just saying or writing what happened and, if you can, say why you believe it was the wrong way for the member of staff or other person to behave towards you.

Once you have got in touch, the person or organisation may need to take some time to look into what has happened. So you may need to allow a bit of time for this. But they should not take a very long time.

They may ask you for more information. Try to give them this as soon as you can.

They should then tell you within a reasonable time what they have decided.

If after investigating what has happened, the person or organisation decides:

then they should tell you this is what they have decided.

If they don’t explain why they decided this, you can ask them to explain. They do not have to explain, but if they do, it may help you to decide what to do next. For example, if it is worth making a claim in court.
If you don’t hear anything from them within a reasonable time, you can remind them of your complaint.

But do remember that if you decide to make a claim in court, you only have six months to fill in the form that starts the claim. The six months starts with the date when you believe you were unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised.

So don’t wait so long for an answer that you are not able to do anything else if the person or organisation does not agree with your complaint or does not agree to do what you believe they should do to set things right.

If they agree that you were unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised, you need to agree with them the best way to solve the complaint.

You may want an apology and to be reassured that they have changed the way they do things or that they have told their staff what they must do to avoid the same thing happening again to you or to someone else.

Or you may have had to spend more money getting the service from somewhere else or have had your feelings badly hurt, which means you believe they should pay you some money in compensation.

Tell the person or organisation what you are thinking of and see if you can both agree. You may need to give way a bit in order to reach an agreement, but this is up to you. If you cannot agree between you how to set things right, then you need to decide if you want to get help from someone else (alternative dispute resolution) or make a claim in court. 

Alternative dispute resolution

The first part of this section assumed you would make the complaint yourself, or with the help of someone you already know.

If you want to get help in sorting out a complaint about discrimination, you could try to get the person or organisation you are complaining about to agree to what is usually called ‘alternative dispute resolution’ or ADR. ADR involves finding a way of sorting out the complaint without a formal court hearing. ADR techniques include mediation and conciliation.

You can find out more about ADR, whether any of the options might be suitable in your situation, what you have to do, and how much it might cost from:

  • ADRnow, an information service run by the Advice Services Alliance (ASA) if you are in England and Wales, and
  • the Scottish Government publication Resolving Disputes Without Going To Court if you are in Scotland.

Details of these organisations are found within Further sources of information.

The questions procedure

If you believe you may have been unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised under equality law, then you can get information from the person or organisation you believe is responsible to help you decide if you have a valid claim or not.

There is a set form to help you do this which you can see at www.equalities.gov.uk, but your questions will still count even if you do not use the form, so long as you use the same questions.  The form is sometimes called a 'questionnaire'.

If you send questions to a person or organisation, they are not legally required to reply to the request, or to answer the questions, but it may harm their case if they do not.

The questions and the answers can form part of the evidence in the case you make under the Equality Act 2010.

If the person or organisation does not respond to the questions within eight weeks of being sent them, then the court can take that into account when making its judgment. The court can also take into account answers which are evasive or unclear.

  • There is an exception to this. The court cannot take the failure to answer into account if an organisation or person states that to give an answer could prejudice criminal proceedings and this is reasonable. Most of the time, breaking equality law only leads to a claim in a civil court. Occasionally, breaking equality law can be punished by the criminal courts. In that situation, someone may be able to refuse to answer the questions, if in answering they might incriminate themselves and it is reasonable for them not to answer.

If someone has told you this applies to the questions you have asked, you should get more advice on what to do. 

Key points about discrimination cases outside the workplace

The key points this guide explains are:

  • where claims are brought
  • time limits for making a claim
  • the standard and burden of proof
  • what the court can order a person or organisation to do

Where claims are brought

If the person or organisation you believe has unlawfully discriminated against you, harassed or victimised you against equality law is:

  • a service provider, or
  • carrying out public functions, or
  • an association, including private clubs and political parties, or
  • a premises provider, whether they provide housing or commercial premises, or
  • in some circumstances, an education provider

then you should make your claim against them in the County Court in England and Wales and in the Sheriff Court in Scotland.

If the organisation is a public authority, you may also make a claim for judicial review in the High Court in England and Wales or the Court of Session in Scotland.

Time limits for making a claim

If you want to make a claim in court for unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation relating to equality law, you must make it within six months of the act that you are complaining about.

If you are complaining about behaviour over a period of time, then the six months begins at the end of the period.

If you are complaining about a failure to do something, for example, a failure to make reasonable adjustments, then the six months begins when the decision was made not to do it.

If there is no solid evidence of a decision, then the decision is assumed to have been made either:

  • when the person who failed to do the thing does something else which shows they don’t intend to do it, or
  • at the end of the time when they might reasonably have been expected to do the thing.

For example:

a business sells goods over the internet. It is having its website redesigned. It looks into having its website made more accessible to disabled people and decides that doing this is a reasonable adjustment. The new website claims to be fully accessible. However, when the new website goes live, it turns out not to be any more accessible than the old one. The business does not do anything about this. A disabled person writes to the organisation and asks them to bring their website up to the standard they are claiming for it. The organisation does nothing. The time limit for making a claim in court is measured from the time when they might reasonably be expected to have made improvements to the website.

A court can hear a claim if it is brought outside this time limit if the court thinks that it would be ‘just and equitable’ (fair to both sides) for it to do this.

The standard and burden of proof

The standard of proof in discrimination cases is the usual one in civil (non-criminal) cases. You and the other side must try to prove the facts of your case are true on the balance of probabilities, in other words, that it is more likely than not in the view of the court or tribunal that your version of events is true.

If you are claiming unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation against a person or organisation, then the burden of proof begins with you. You must prove enough facts from which the court can decide, without any other explanation, that the discrimination, harassment or victimisation has taken place.

Once you have done this, then, in the absence of any other explanation, the burden shifts onto the other side to show that they (or someone whose actions or failures to act they were responsible for – see When the service provider is responsible for what other people do, for what this means) did not discriminate, harass or victimise you.

What the court can order a person or organisation to do

What the court can order the other side to do if you win your case is called ‘a remedy’. 

County Courts and Sheriff Courts hearing discrimination claims can grant any remedy that the High Court in England or Wales or the Court of Session in Scotland can grant for a civil wrong or in a claim for judicial review.

The main remedies available are:

  • Damages (including compensation for injuries to your feelings).
  • An injunction in England or Wales or an interdict in Scotland – this is an order made by the court to stop a person or organisation from acting in an unlawful way. Sometimes, an injunction in England or Wales can be mandatory; that is, the person or organisation has to do something (for example, has to change a policy or make a reasonable adjustment). In Scotland, an order for specific implement works in the same way.
  • A declaration in England or Wales or a declarator in Scotland – this is a statement by the court which says that someone has been discriminated against.

In cases of indirect discrimination, if the other side can prove that they did not intend what they did to be discriminatory, the court must consider all of the remedies before looking at damages.

The court can also order the other side to pay your legal costs and expenses.

But if you lose your claim, the court may order you to pay the other side’s legal costs and expenses.

More information about making a claim in court

You can find out more about what to do if you want to make a claim in court from:

More information

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