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Discrimination in services and public functions - overview

This advice applies to England

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in civil courts.

If you're treated unfairly by a public sector organisation or a public authority, like a local authority or the police, it could be unlawful discrimination under the Act. If you've experienced unlawful discrimination you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about what could be unlawful discrimination by a public authority.  

Identifying discrimination

You can follow these steps to check whether unlawful discrimination has taken place:

  • who's treating you unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's carried out by certain people
  • why you're being treated unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's for certain reasons
  • what's the unfair treatment - only certain types of behaviour count as unlawful discrimination
  • how is the treatment unfair - there are different types of unlawful discrimination.

Who’s treating you unfairly?

The Equality Act 2010 says most public authorities have a duty not discriminate against you when they carry out their work.

What’s a public authority?

Public authorities include:

  • local authorities
  • government departments like the Department for Work and Pensions or HM Revenue and Customs
  • the police
  • prison authorities
  • private organisations when they carry out public functions on behalf of a public authority - for example, a private company running a prison or a charity providing child protection services.

When are public authorities covered by the Equality Act?

Public authorities are covered by the Equality Act when they:

  • provide services to the public - for example, the provision of libraries or leisure facilities
  • carry out public functions - for example, law enforcement or the collection of taxes.

Does it matter whether something is a service or a public function?

It doesn’t generally matter whether something is a service or a public function. Most of the time the Equality Act applies in the same way to both.  

But there are some differences, these are:

  • when the public authority has a duty to remove barriers for disabled people
  • what doesn't count as discrimination by a public authority.

Why are you treated unfairly?

If you’re treated unfairly, it’s only unlawful discrimination if the treatment is because you or someone else, like a relative or a friend, belongs to a particular group. People who belong to these groups have what’s called protected characteristics.

The characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act in relation to services and public functions are:

  • age - but only if you’re 18 or over
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

What’s the unfair treatment?

Only certain types of behaviour by a public authority can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

When the public authority provides services to you

A public authority mustn't discriminate against you by:

  • refusing to provide you with a service or stop providing you with a service
  • giving you a service on worse terms or of worse quality - for example, charging you more or making you wait longer
  • causing you any other harm or disadvantage when providing you with a service - the Equality Act calls this a detriment.

When the public authority exercises public functions

A public authority mustn't discriminate against you by:

  • saying you can't benefit from a public function - for example, if you’re refused a discretionary benefit like discretionary housing payments
  • treating you in a worse manner when exercising a public function - for example, making you wait longer at the Jobcentre or treating you worse when arresting you
  • causing you any other harm or disadvantage when exercising a public function - the Equality Act calls this a detriment.

Example

You’re deaf and your first language is BSL. When the police interview you at the police station they don't provide you with a BSL interpreter. This could be unlawful disability discrimination.

Example

You're an Irish Traveller. A planning officer refuses your planning application because he doesn't like Travellers. This is unlawful race discrimination.

How are you treated unfairly?

There are different types of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

These are:

  • direct discrimination
  • indirect discrimination
  • discrimination because of something connected to your disability - this is called discrimination arising from disability
  • failure to remove the barriers you face because of your disability - this is called the duty to make reasonable adjustments
  • harassment
  • victimisation.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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