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Taking action about race discrimination

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

What is race discrimination

Legally, race discrimination can be 'direct' or 'indirect', or can take the form of harassment or victimisation.

Public authorities have a legal duty to eliminate unlawful discrimination and to actively promote equality.

If you are taking action over race discrimination, you do not have to demonstrate that there was an intention to discriminate against you. It is only necessary to show that discrimination took place.

You do not have to demonstrate that racial grounds were the only reason for the discrimination you experienced. It is enough to show that racial grounds played a substantial part in the discrimination. For a definition of ‘racial grounds' - see below.

Direct race discrimination

I'm Asian and the other night, I went to a nightclub with some of my friends. They said we couldn't get in because it was full. Yet a group of white people just walked in. Is this discrimination? Is there anything we can do about this?.

Yes, this could have been an example of race discrimination. You might be able to take court action and get compensation. Go to your CAB for further advice.

It is direct race discrimination to treat a person less favourably on racial grounds than another person would be treated in the same circumstances. As well as words or acts of refusal, direct discrimination includes words or acts of discouragement.

A clear example of direct race discrimination would be the refusal to appoint a person from a particular racial group because, according to the employer, ‘they wouldn’t fit in’ or ‘the customers would object’. Less obvious examples would be a person being turned down for a job because of a connection with someone of a particular racial group, for example, because their partner is Afro-Caribbean, or being dismissed for refusing to carry out instructions that would discriminate against people from that racial group.

Indirect race discrimination

I'm of Indian origin and was employed on a casual basis. Now all the casual workers have been asked to take a written test to decide whether we can stay in the job. I have problems with writing in English. We never have to write anything down in the job and my spoken English is fine. I complained to my boss but he just said I had to take the test or leave. Is there anything else I can do?

You may have a case for race discrimination. Go to your CAB for further advice about what to do. They could help you negotiate with your employers. If this doesn't work, you may be able to go to the Employment Tribunal.

It is indirect race discrimination to set conditions or requirements for a person to meet which may seem to apply to everyone, but may place people of a particular racial, ethnic or national group at an unfair disadvantage.

There may have been indirect discrimination if:-

  • people of a particular racial, ethnic or national group are less likely to be able to meet it; and
  • as a result, people who cannot meet it are placed at a disadvantage or would be placed at a disadvantage; and
  • it cannot be justified by the person or institution setting it - see below.

There may be indirect discrimination if members of one or more racial, ethnic or national group are less likely to meet it than others. An example would be if an employer insists that candidates for a job should speak faultless English when this is clearly not needed for the type of work. Further examples are banning the wearing of headscarves or insisting on the wearing of skirts at work or school, or an employer insisting that a person has qualifications obtained only in the UK.


I have complained to my manager about the racist language used in my workplace. Now no one will talk to me. It's really upsetting and making me ill. Is there anything I can do?

This could be an example of what is called victimisation. It's against the law. There are steps you can take to try and sort out the problem. Go to your trade union, if you’re a member. Or get help from an experienced adviser, for example, at your local CAB.

You will have suffered victimisation if you are treated less favourably because you have complained, brought proceedings or asserted your rights under race discrimination laws. This also includes a person who has assisted or supported you in doing this, for example, by giving evidence as a witness in a case of race discrimination.

What are ‘racial grounds’

‘Racial grounds’ include:-

  • colour
  • race
  • nationality
  • ethnic or national origins.

It's not always easy to say exactly what is meant by 'ethnic origins'. However, legal discrimination cases have made it clear whether certain groups of people can be counted as belonging to an ethnic group. For example, Jews, Romany gypsies, members of the Irish traveller community, and Sikhs were found to be ethnic groups. Rastafarians were not found to be members of an ethnic group. However, it is illegal to discriminate against you if you are a Rastafarian, because of your religion.

It is not necessary for you to belong to one of these groups for discrimination to take place. Someone may discriminate against you because they believe you belong to a different racial group.

Where race discrimination is unlawful

It is unlawful to discriminate on grounds of race in:-

  • employment and training
  • education
  • the provision of goods and services, for example, financial matters, entertainment and transport
  • housing
  • any of the activities carried out by public authorities, such as government departments, local authorities, the police and prisons.

Employment and training

It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against someone on the grounds of race. This includes all employers, no matter how few people they employ. Most workers, including employees, trainees and those who are self-employed have legal protection from race discrimination in all aspects of employment including recruitment, selection, promotion, training, pay and benefits, redundancy, dismissal and terms and conditions of work.

Trade unions have a duty not to discriminate against their members or those wishing to become members.

There are some situations where it is not unlawful to discriminate in employment – see under heading When race discrimination is not illegal.


It is unlawful for any school or college to discriminate on grounds of race. This is the case whether or not it is maintained by the education and library board. A school must not discriminate in any of its policies and practices, including its admissions policies, its treatment of pupils, exclusions or decisions about a pupil’s special educational needs.

For more information about dealing with racism in schools see Problems at school.

An education and library board must not discriminate in any of the decisions it makes.

Goods, facilities and services

There's a notice in our local pub saying No travellers. I'm not a traveller myself but I still find the notice horrible. Is there anything I can do about it?

Members of the Irish travelling community are counted as an ethnic group, so this notice is probably against the law. An experienced adviser, for example at your local CAB could help you to make a complaint or take the matter further this doesn't solve the problem.

It is unlawful for anyone providing goods, facilities or services in the United Kingdom to discriminate on grounds of race, either by refusing to provide goods, services or facilities, or by providing them on less favourable terms or conditions. This is the case regardless of whether the goods, services or facilities are provided for payment or free.


In most circumstances, it is unlawful for a person or organisation responsible for selling or letting a property to discriminate on grounds of race, either by refusing to sell or rent the premises or in the terms on which the premises is offered.

For more information about buying a home, see Buying a home.

In most circumstances, it is unlawful for the Northern Ireland Housing executive, housing associations or other social landlords to discriminate on grounds of race, for example, in the allocation of property to people on the local housing lists.

For more information about being housed, see Finding accommodation.

It is unlawful for a landlord to discriminate against a tenant once a property is occupied.

When race discrimination is not illegal

The law on race discrimination says there are some situations where race discrimination is permitted.


If certain conditions or requirements in employment can be shown to be a ‘genuine occupational qualification’ they may not be discriminatory. For example, it may be justified for the owner of a Chinese or a Greek restaurant to ask for a Chinese or a Greek waiter because the restaurant setting requires this. It is justifiable for a hostel for Asian women who have suffered violence to specify that it wants only Asian women workers on the grounds that the women would find it easier to relate to and communicate with people of the same racial group.

Race discrimination is not unlawful if the job involves working for a private household, working abroad for most of the time or when, with regard to certain jobs, the Crown is the employer.

Goods, facilities and services

Clubs, associations and charities set up especially for people of a particular ethnic or national group are allowed to discriminate on the basis of nationality or ethnic or national origin but not on the grounds of colour.


Owner-occupiers who are selling or letting their property can lawfully discriminate on the grounds of race if they do not advertise or use an estate agent. So can people who are renting out a ‘small premises’, if the landlord or a member of their family have to share facilities with the tenants or prospective tenants.

Courses of action

If you think that you have suffered race discrimination there are a number of courses of action you can take. These include:-

  • negotiating with the person or body that discriminated against you; and/or
  • using a grievance procedure; and/or
  • publicising your case through the media; and/or
  • taking your own individual case under race discrimination legislation; and/or
  • taking legal action not related to race discrimination legislation; and/or
  • giving details of the problem to the Racial Equality Directorate of the Equality Commission if you believe the problem is widespread - see under heading Sources of help.

If you are an employee and you think you have suffered race discrimination at work, you may need to raise a written grievance with your employer before you can make a claim to an employment tribunal For more information, see Resolving disputes at work in Northern Ireland.

The course of action you choose to take will depend partly on the outcome you wish to achieve, for example, financial compensation, justice, publicity, and the speed with which you wish to get a result.

Any course of action is likely to be complicated and may involve court action and you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizen’s Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Other types of discrimination

As well as race discrimination, you could be treated unfairly for other reasons because:

  • you're a woman
  • you're pregnant
  • you're lesbian or gay
  • you're disabled
  • of your age
  • of your religion.

For example, you're a black woman and you're sacked because you're pregnant. You may have a claim for sex discrimination as well as race discrimination. If you think you've been treated unfairly because you're black and because you're a woman, make sure you raise both issues if you make a complaint.

For more information about sex discrimination, see Taking action about sex discrimination in Northern Ireland.

For more information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination in Northern Ireland.

For more information about discrimination at work because of your age, see Age discrimination at work.

Help with taking a case

You may get some help with taking a case against race discrimination.

You may be able to get advice from your local Citizens Advice Bureau, or from the Equality Commission – see under heading Sources of help.

If you qualify for legal aid, you may get free legal advice and assistance from a solicitor. This comes under Legal aid green form scheme. You might also be able to get help with the cost of taking a case to court under Legal Representation.

For more information on help you can get with legal costs see Help with legal costs.

To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Sources of help

Information in other languages

Information about race discrimination is available in other languages on the Equality Commission’s website at


The Monitoring Group Freephone Emergency Helpline advises victims of racial harassment and abuse. It is available 24 hours a day and it is staffed by volunteers recruited from black and minority ethnic communities to ensure they can communicate with the caller in the appropriate language. The helpline number is 0800 374 618.

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

You can get advice from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. The contact details are:

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
Equality House
7-9 Shaftesbury Square

Tel: 028 9050 0600
Textphone: 028 9050 0589

Enquiry line: 028 90 890 890
Fax: 028 9024 8687

Law Centre

The Law centre can offer free legal advice to people who want to take action about race discrimination in relation to employment.

Details of the law centre are available from:-

Law Centre NI
124 Donegall Street

Tel: 028 9024 4401
Fax: 028 9023 6340


To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM)

NICEM can provide advice and assistance to people who believe they have suffered from race discrimination and can help people prepare race discrimination cases. NICEM can be contacted at:-

3rd Floor
Ascot House
24-31 Shaftesbury Square

Tel: 028 9023 8645
Emergency helpline: 028 9024 2025

Fax: 028 9031 9485

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