Services for particular groups

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Any organisation providing a service

Which countries is it relevant to?

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There are limited and specific situations in which you can provide (or refuse to provide) all or some of your services to people based on a protected characteristic. These exceptions apply to any organisation which meets the strict tests. There are some further exceptions which apply just to charities, which you can read about  in Exceptions: charities and religion or belief organisations, or just to religion or belief organisations

If you normally supply services only for people with a particular protected characteristic (such as those of a particular ethnic background or gay men or lesbians), you can carry on providing the service the same way.

For example:

A voluntary sector organisation holds reduced rate lunches for older people of Chinese ethnic background. It provides Chinese food cooked in a traditional way.  If someone who was not from Chinese ethnic background wanted to attend, then the organisation could not refuse them, but it need not provide a different style of food..

You can refuse to provide the service to someone who does not have that characteristic if you reasonably think it is impracticable for you to provide them with the service.

You can also target your advertising or marketing at a group with particular protected characteristics, as long as you do not suggest you will not serve people with a particular characteristic (unless one of the exceptions applies). You can read more about advertising and marketing.

You are allowed to provide separate services for men and women where providing a joint service (ie one where men and women are provided with exactly the same service) would not be as effective. 

You are also allowed to provide separate services for men and women in different ways or to a different level where providing a joint service would not be as effective and the extent to which the service is required by one sex means it is not reasonably practicable to provide the service except in the different ways or to a different level for each sex. In each case, you need to be able to objectively justify what you are doing.

For example:

An organisation providing services to homeless people provides separate hostel accommodation for men and women. Equality law allows this provided the organisation can show that a combined service would not be as effective, it would not be reasonably practicable to provide the service except in the different ways, and that what it is doing is objectively justified.

You are allowed to provide single-sex services (services just for men or just for women) where this is objectively justified and:

  • only men or only women require the service, or
  • if there is joint provision for both sexes but that is not enough on its own, or
  • if the service were provided for men and women jointly, it would not be as effective and the extent to which each sex requires the service make it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services for each sex, or
  • the services are provided in a hospital or other place where users need special attention (or in parts of such an establishment), or
  • the services may be used by more than one person at the same time and a woman might object to the presence of a man (or vice versa), or
  • the services involve physical contact between a user and someone else and that other person may reasonably object if the user is of the opposite sex.

For example:

An organisation providing health screening can offer services only to men or only to women, where the screening involves health conditions that affect only men or only women.

A voluntary sector group that exists to promote health through physical activity runs separate taster sessions at a local swimming pool for women as well as mixed sessions, because they have discovered that significant numbers of women would not attend a mixed session because of the presence of men.

An organisation which is providing separate sex services or single-sex services should treat a transsexual person according to the gender they identify with (as opposed to the physical sex they were born with). The service provider can only exclude a transsexual person or provide them with a different service if they can objectively justify doing so.

A voluntary organisation may have a policy about providing its service to transsexual users, but this policy must still be applied on a case-by-case basis. It is necessary to balance the needs of the transsexual person for the service, and the disadvantage to them if they are refused access to it, against the needs of other users, and any disadvantage to them, if the transsexual person is allowed access. To do this may require discussion with service users (maintaining confidentiality for the transsexual service user). Care should be taken in each case to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice.

One factor an organisation should consider, is where a transsexual person is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from someone of the gender they identify with, they should normally be treated according to their gender identity unless there are strong reasons not to do so.

You can refuse to provide a service to a pregnant woman, or set conditions on the service, because you reasonably believe that providing the service in the usual way would create a risk to the woman’s health or safety, and you would do the same thing in relation to a person whose health and safety might be at risk because of a different physical condition.

For example:

A voluntary organisation holds aerobic classes at a local sports hall. They run separate classes for pregnant women and for people with back injuries. When they refuse to allow a pregnant woman to go to the regular class, this decision is likely to be allowed because of this exception.

As well as these exceptions, it may be possible for your organisation to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action. You must be able to show that you have reason to think that the protected characteristic these people share means they have a different need or experience disadvantage or have low participation in the sort of activities you run. If you are thinking about taking positive action, you need to go through a number of steps to decide whether it is needed and what sort of action to take.

As well as these exceptions, equality law allows you to treat disabled people more favourably than non-disabled people. The aim of the law in allowing this is to remove barriers that disabled people would otherwise face to accessing services. 

For example:

A voluntary organisation provides free travel to disabled people who want to attend its events, but not to non-disabled people.  This would be lawful.

Last updated: 13 Jul 2020

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.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


Opening hours:

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closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays

Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.