Core guidance: Voluntary charity and community organisations

Advice and Guidance

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Making sure you know what equality law says you must do as an organisation providing goods, facilities or services to the public

First, use this list to make sure you know in general what equality law says you must do.

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.

Then you will know how you fit into each of these protected characteristics.

View a detailed list of the protected characteristics 

Be aware that sometimes, charities and religion or belief organisations can decide who to provide services to on the basis of a person’s protected characteristics. You can read more about this later on in this guide.

But the following list will help you to know how you must and must not treat clients and service users in most situations.

Unlawful discrimination, in other words, treating some people worse than others because of a protected characteristic can take a number of different forms:

  • You must not treat a person worse than someone else because of a protected characteristic (this is called direct discrimination).

For example:

A charity won't accept someone as a service user because of their ethnic origin.

  • You must not do something to someone which has (or would have) a worse impact on them and other people who share a particular protected characteristic 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 charity which runs a drop-in centre decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to users. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every user, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be allowed to use the drop-in centre. Unless the charity can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.

  • You must not treat 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 be expected to know that the person is a disabled person.

For example:

A community organisation runs a lunch club and has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the organisation bars 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 organisation can objectively justify what it has done.

  • You must not treat a person worse than someone else because they are associated with a person who has a protected characteristic.

For example:

The committee running a voluntary sector organisation refuses to allow a child to take part in their play activities because the child’s parents are a gay couple. It is likely the child has been unlawfully discriminated against because of their association with their parents’ sexual orientation.

  • You must not treat a person worse because you incorrectly think they have a protected characteristic (perception).

For example:

A member of staff mistakenly thinks a woman is a transsexual person. Because of this they tell her their voluntary organisation’s activities are not open to her. It is likely the woman has been unlawfully discriminated against because of gender reassignment, even though she is not a transsexual person.

You must not treat a person badly or ‘victimise’ them 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.

For example:

A service user supports another person’s complaint that a charity has unlawfully discriminated against them. The service user is later told that they cannot apply for help from the charity. If this is because of their part in supporting the complaint, this is likely to be victimisation.

  • You must not harass a person.

For example:

A member of staff is verbally abusive to a service user in relation to a protected characteristic.

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 likely still 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, to make sure that disabled people are able to use your services as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, you must make reasonable adjustments. You cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use your services, but must think in advance about what 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.

For example:

A charity provides a telephone helpline service to its clients. It installs a textphone so that people with hearing impairments can communicate with it and receive advice. It also offers the alternative of instant messaging via the internet which also removes barriers to accessing the service for people who cannot, for a variety of reasons such as visual impairment or dyslexia, make notes during a phone call.

A voluntary sector organisation provides services to support parents, including advice leaflets. It makes sure its leaflets are simply written, with pictures to illustrate what the leaflets say. This is likely to make them more accessible to people with a learning disability.

A community association holds a public meeting to discuss what additional leisure facilities are needed for the public in the local community. It ensures that the meeting is held in a venue that is accessible to people with mobility impairments and it arranges for there to be a palantypist at the meeting to transcribe what is said onto a computer. The organisation has thought about who might use its services by attending the meeting and has made a range of adjustments which it has decided are reasonable for it to make.

You can read more about making reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people.

Because of a protected characteristic, you and anyone working for you:

  • Must not refuse to serve someone or refuse to take them on as a client.

For example:

You must not refuse to serve a woman who is breastfeeding a baby.

You must not say you will not take people with a particular religion or belief as a client.

  • Must not stop serving or working for someone if you still serve or work for other service users or clients who do not have the same protected characteristic in the same circumstances.

For example:

You must not stop offering home visits to disabled people who you find out have a mental health condition if you go on offering them to other clients. That is likely to be unlawful disability discrimination.

  • Must not give someone a service of a worse quality or in a worse way than you would usually provide the service.

For example:

You must not take twice as long to make a decision about whether to help someone if this delay is because of a protected characteristic.

  • Must not give someone worse terms of service than you would normally offer.

For example:

You must not make it harder for someone with a particular protected characteristic to access your services.

  • Must not put them at any other disadvantage.

You can still tell your service users or clients what standards of behaviour you want from them - for example, behaving with respect towards your staff and to other service users or clients.

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. 

For example:

A voluntary organisation runs a play group for young children. One child who attends has a learning disability and sometimes shouts loudly, even during rest times when children have been asked to be quiet. The play group accepts that the child does not always understand when it is appropriate to be loud or quiet. They do not treat the child as if they are being naughty. In behaving like this, the play group has made a reasonable adjustment to the standards of behaviour it applies.

If the play group did decide that the child’s behaviour was causing more significant difficulties for other children 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 child attending (in other words, withdrawing the service from the child). Otherwise, this is likely to be discrimination arising from disability and/or indirect discrimination because of the child’s disability.

Check out: What does equality law mean for you when you’re providing services to the public: staff, places, written information, websites, telephone access?

You can read more about providing services:

Check out: When you are responsible for what other people do.

You can read more about when you are responsible for what other people, such as staff working for you.

Equality good practice: what you can do if you want to do more than equality law requires

This guide tells you what equality law says you must and must not do to avoid unlawful discrimination.
If you want to be sure you are doing this, it is a good idea to:

  • use an equality policy to help you check that you have thought about equality in the way you plan what you do and how you do it, and
  • give equality training to everyone in your organisation who deals with service users or clients, to make sure they know the right and wrong ways to behave.

Last updated: 08 Jul 2016

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082
Textphone: 0808 800 0084

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

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