Service providers are not allowed to discriminate unlawfully when providing goods or services to people. Discrimination when providing services means:
- refusing to provide a service
- providing a lower standard of service
- offering a service on different terms than you would to other people.
It is unlawful to discriminate in providing goods, facilities or services to the public on the grounds of sex, race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and religion or belief. There is no legislation that makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of age when providing services: for example, a pub can choose to refuse service to people under 21.
As a service provider, having good equality practices will help make your services available to the widest possible range of customers. Improvements such as better lighting and clear signs benefit everyone. Understanding this aim and the consequences of these laws will help protect you from legal action, which can be expensive and damaging to your reputation.
As part of their responsibilities under the Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, public authorities (and contractors who work on their behalf) have additional duties to promote equality of opportunity as well as tackling unlawful discrimination. Find out more about these responsibilities.
Liability and legal responsibility
As employers, service providers are legally responsible for the discriminatory acts of the people they employ if the acts are committed in the course of employment, even where those acts are done without either the authority or knowledge of the employer.
Any discrimination or harassment by an individual employee in the course of his or her employment is treated as also being committed by the employer, and therefore both employee and employer are liable.
Find out more about your legal responsibilities to tackle discrimination as an employer.
If you publish advertisements, you share with advertisers and their agents the responsibility for ensuring that advertisements do not indicate any intention to discriminate unlawfully. However, as a publisher you would not be liable if you could prove that:
- you relied on a statement made by the advertisers that publication would not be unlawful, for example, when an exception is being claimed
- it was reasonable for you to rely on that statement.
Aiding unlawful acts
You are acting unlawfully if you knowingly help someone else to discriminate unlawfully. This applies to instructing or causing someone to discriminate on grounds of race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religion or belief. This is true even if there is no employment or business relationship between you and the other person.
It is an offence to claim that an unlawful action is lawful when you know it is not, in order to persuade someone to help you do it.
When discrimination is lawful
Under certain limited circumstances, it is lawful to discriminate when providing services. These circumstances are usually linked to the specific nature of the service or the provider. Examples might include:
- services which are single-sex for reasons of privacy and decency, or which would cause ‘serious embarrassment’ if members of the opposite sex were present
- services by voluntary groups or charities whose primary purpose is to provide services to one sex
- services offered by a religious organisation, if they are offered in a place which is used by the organisation or if restricting the services to one sex is in line with the doctrines of that religion
- circumstances in which the service provider would be otherwise unable to provide the service
- if the service is provided in the interests of national security, and can be justified as such.
It can be lawful to treat some people more favourably than others if this is done to address discrimination or disadvantage in another area.
A supermarket restricts use of the parking spaces nearest to its main entrance to disabled customers. This treats non-disabled customers less favourably but is likely to be lawful, since disabled customers would otherwise find it more difficult and time-consuming to access the supermarket’s services.
You should check to see whether any of these or other legal exceptions apply to the services you provide.
Remember, the above exceptions are there only if it is essential to use them. It is good practice to introduce equality into your procedures and practices even if the present law does not require it.
In limited circumstances, it may be lawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability if the service provider is otherwise unable to provide the service, or can only provide the service at a lower standard than for non-disabled people, and can justify this as being necessary. It is only justifiable to refuse to provide a service to disabled people if your organisation would effectively be prevented from providing the service to other members of the public.
A service provider is running a course and is using a British Sign Language interpreter for several participants. The interpreter is late. The service provider refuses to wait for 15 minutes before starting the course because, unless it begins on time, they will not be able to get through all the information.
While those who require the interpreter are therefore put at a disadvantage compared with other participants, in this instance it might reasonably be considered necessary in order to provide the service to others.
A service provider can provide service users with a lower standard of service if they would otherwise not be able to access the service at all.
A hotel restricts a wheelchair user’s choice of bedrooms to those with level access to the lifts. Those rooms tend to be noisier and have restricted views. The disabled person would otherwise be unable to use the hotel. This restriction is necessary in order to provide the service to the disabled guest, and so is likely to be justified.
If making reasonable adjustments would lead to breaking another legal obligation, you may not be required to make them.
The owner of a listed building that is open to the public would like to add a handrail to a staircase at the main entrance, but may not be allowed to under the terms of the listing. This is likely to be lawful, but the owner should still ask for permission to make the adjustment. If the owner does not ask for permission, which may be granted, the lack of a handrail is likely to be unlawful.
Private clubs and associations
A private members’ club is one that operates genuine selection of members on personal grounds; that is, a new member is proposed, seconded and accepted by the existing membership.
Private members’ clubs are allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race where the main object of the association is to enable the benefits of membership to be enjoyed by a persons of particular racial group defined in a way other than by reference to colour.
It is lawful for a club set up to benefit French people to restrict its membership to people of French nationality.
It is also lawful to discriminate in this way on the ground of sexual orientation if the main object of the club is to enable the benefits of membership to be enjoyed by persons of a particular sexual orientation.
A social club for lesbians has a rule that restricts its membership to lesbians only. It does not allow gay men, bisexual or heterosexual people to become members, although they can be admitted as guests of members. The membership rule is lawful discrimination.
There is currently no prohibition on private members’ clubs discriminating on grounds of someone’s gender, religion or belief.
A social club has a rule that only people who are baptised as Catholics can become members. Members of other religions and beliefs, and those with none, are welcome as guests. The membership rule is lawful discrimination.
A voluntary body is also allowed to provide services and benefits to one sex only if this is the main reason why it was set up.
A voluntary group which is set up to provide a free taxi service for women only, or a voluntary boys’ group which refuses to admit girl members, could both be lawful.
Last Updated: 04 Jun 2009