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Direct discrimination

If you’ve been treated unfairly by someone simply because of who you are, this could be direct discrimination. Direct discrimination is against the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the civil courts.

If you've experienced unlawful discrimination, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about direct discrimination.

Top tips

Remember direct discrimination can be because of:

  • who you are
  • who someone thinks you are
  • someone you’re with.

It’s only unlawful discrimination if you’re treated differently and worse because of a protected characteristic.

What is direct discrimination?

Direct discrimination is when you’re treated differently and worse than someone else for certain reasons. The Equality Act says you’ve been treated less favourably.

Direct discrimination can be because of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

Why are you being treated differently?

Not all unfair treatment is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act. It’s only unlawful discrimination if you’re treated differently because of a protected characteristic.

It doesn’t matter if the person treating you differently didn’t mean to discriminate against you or if they didn’t know they were discriminating. If someone treats you differently because of a protected characteristic, it’s direct discrimination.

Why is it important to know if something is unlawful discrimination?

It’s important to know when unfair treatment is unlawful discrimination as you can only take action under the Equality Act if this is the case. If you’ve been treated unfairly, but it’s not unlawful discrimination there may be other things you can do.

What’s meant by less favourable treatment?

Less favourable treatment means you’ve been treated differently to someone else who doesn't have the same protected characteristic as you and you're worse off because of it.

Example

You’re a saleswoman and you inform your employer that you want to spend the rest of your life living as a man. As a result of this, you’re moved to a role without client contact against your wishes. This is less favourable treatment because of gender reassignment. It would still be less favourable treatment even if your employer were to increase you salary to make up for the loss of job status.

Racial segregation

Racial segregation, if it’s deliberate, is always considered to be less favourable treatment. This means you can challenge racial segregation under the Equality Act as it’s direct discrimination.

Example

A youth club has different opening times for the local Asian and black communities. This is a deliberate policy by the youth club to avoid any trouble between the two communities. This is racial segregation and is unlawful discrimination.

Who have you been treated less favourably than?

To show direct discrimination, you need to compare your treatment with the treatment of someone else who doesn't have the same protected characteristic as you. The Equality Act calls this person a comparator.

Example

You’re an Irish Traveller. Irish Travellers are considered to be part of an ethnic group under the Equality Act and so share the protected characteristic of race. You want to have your wedding at your local hotel but the manager tells you the hotel is fully booked for the next few months. As you leave, you hear the same manager tell another couple, who are not Irish Travellers, that the hotel is free for their wedding two weeks from now.

You could complain that you have been treated less favourably than the couple who were able to book the hotel for the wedding. They are in a similar situation to you but they don’t share your protected characteristic. This couple would be your comparator.

Direct discrimination because of who someone thinks you are

If someone treats you differently because of who they think you are, it’s also direct discrimination. This is called direct discrimination by perception.

Example

You’re heterosexual. An estate agent refuses to let you a flat because he thinks you’re gay. This is direct discrimination by perception because of sexual orientation which is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

Direct discrimination because of someone you’re with or someone you know

It’s also direct discrimination if someone treats you differently because of someone you’re with or someone you know. This could be a parent, child, partner or friend. This is called direct discrimination by association.  

Example

Your employer disciplines you because you have to take time off to care for your disabled child. He has not disciplined other workers who have had similar amounts of time off work. This is direct discrimination by association because of the protected characteristic of disability.

When is it lawful to treat someone less favourably?

Age

Sometimes it’s not direct discrimination if someone treats you differently because of age. The law says it’s possible to justify direct age discrimination if there’s a good enough reason for treating you differently.

Example

Your GP practice only provides free flu jabs to people over 65. This is because older people are more vulnerable to the flu and are more likely to be seriously ill if they get the virus. This is a good enough reason for treating people differently based on age.

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)

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