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Check if you've experienced discrimination

This advice applies to Scotland

If you’ve been treated unfairly or harassed, you should check if what happened is covered by the Equality Act 2010. This is the law that stops employers, businesses and service providers discriminating against you.

If it’s covered by the Equality Act, it’s ‘unlawful discrimination’ - this means the discrimination is against the law.

You can take action if you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination. For example, if you lost your job because of unlawful discrimination you might be able to get it back or get compensation.

To work out if you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination, you’ll need to check:

  1. You were discriminated against because of something about you like your age or race - these things are called ‘protected characteristics’

  2. The person or organisation that treated you unfairly is legally responsible for discrimination under the Equality Act

  3. What happened meets the definition of a type of discrimination described in the Equality Act

If you work out that you haven’t experienced discrimination under the Equality Act, you might still be able to take action using different laws.

1. Check if it was because of a protected characteristic

It’s unlawful to discriminate against you because of one or more of the 9 protected characteristics.

If you weren’t discriminated against because of a protected characteristic, it’s not discrimination under the Equality Act.

The 9 protected characteristics are:

Age

You must not usually be discriminated against because of:

  • how old you are 

  • an age group you’re in - for example young people, millennials or over-60s 

However, sometimes businesses and service providers are allowed to treat you differently because of your age. For example, banks are allowed to set age limits on mortgage lending.

You can check when businesses or services can discriminate against you because of your age.

Disability

If you are disabled or have a long-term health condition, you’re protected from discrimination if your impairment meets the Equality Act’s definition of disability.

The Equality Act says you’re disabled if:

  • you have a physical or mental impairment

  • the impairment has a substantial and long-term effect on your everyday activities

If you want to make a disability discrimination claim, you’ll need to show your impairment meets the Equality Act’s definition of disability.

Some conditions are automatically treated as a disability under the Equality Act, including cancer and HIV.

Check how to show you’re disabled under the Equality Act.

Gender reassignment - this means if you're transgender

If you’re transgender, you have the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’.

Gender reassignment means you:

  • are planning to transition from the sex you were assigned at birth to a different sex

  • are in the process of transitioning 

  • have already transitioned

Transitioning could include things like changing your name, pronouns or the way you dress - you don’t need to have had medical treatment.

The Equality Act is from 2010 and it doesn’t reflect the language lots of people use to describe their gender or their transition.

If you’re non-binary

The Equality Act says you only have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if you’re transitioning from one sex to another. It doesn’t mention non-binary people. 

In 2020, a non-binary person successfully argued they had the protected characteristic of gender reassignment at an employment tribunal. 

The judge at the tribunal said the characteristic should include people transitioning away from their assigned sex - even if they aren’t going to transition to a different sex.

Other courts don’t have to follow this decision. This means if you take legal action about discrimination, the judge might decide you don’t have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

If you want to make a complaint or legal claim about discrimination, it’s still worth referencing this case. 

The name of the case is Ms R Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. You can read the full employment tribunal decision on GOV.UK. The judge’s decision about non-binary people is in paragraph 178 of the 'Reasons' document.

Marriage and civil partnership

Your employer must not discriminate against you because you’re married or in a civil partnership.

Work is the only place you’re protected from discrimination because of marriage or civil partnership.

If you’ve separated from your partner, you’re still protected until you legally end your marriage or civil partnership.

If you’re not married or in a civil partnership, you don’t have this protected characteristic - for example, if you’re in an unmarried relationship or you’re divorced.

Example

Since Nisha got married, her manager has stopped giving her weekend shifts and won’t let her do overtime. Her manager said other members of staff need the extra shifts more and her husband should be supporting her financially. This is discrimination because of marriage.

Pregnancy and maternity

You’re protected from maternity and pregnancy discrimination while you’re pregnant. The protection starts as soon as your pregnancy begins.

At work, your protection ends either:

  • when your maternity leave ends - if you’re entitled to it

  • 2 weeks after your baby is born - if you’re not entitled to maternity leave

Your employer also can’t discriminate against you because you’re planning to take maternity leave, or because you took it in the past. Check your rights while you’re on maternity leave.

Outside of work, your protection ends 26 weeks after your baby is born.

After the protected period ends

If you experience discrimination after you stop being protected from pregnancy discrimination, you might be able to claim sex discrimination.

Race

You must not be discriminated against because of your race. 

The Equality Act says race includes your:

  • colour

  • nationality

  • ethnic or national origins

It can also include other things related to race - like how you talk, the clothes you wear or your hairstyle.

Nationality

Your nationality is the country where you have citizenship. You might be a citizen of more than one country - for example, you could have British and Armenian dual citizenship. 

Ethnic and national origins

Ethnic and national origins can include lots of different things like:

  • the country or region where you were born or grew up

  • where your parents or other family members came from

  • the ethnic group you belong to - for example, if you’re Caribbean, Jewish or Irish Traveller

It’s still race discrimination even if the discrimination isn’t about your actual ethnic or national origins. For example, it’s race discrimination if you’re Bangladeshi and someone uses anti-Pakistani slurs against you.

Religion or belief

You must not be discriminated against if you belong to an organised religion - for example, if you’re Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. This includes smaller religions like Rastafarianism or Paganism.

You also must not be discriminated against for belonging to a specific denomination or sect - for example if you’re Jewish and you’re Orthodox or Liberal.

Your religious beliefs are also protected. For example if you’re Christian, you must not be discriminated against for believing in creationism.

You’re also protected if you don’t have any religion or religious beliefs. For example, you mustn’t be discriminated against for being an atheist. 

Philosophical beliefs

You must not be discriminated against for your philosophical beliefs. It’s up to a court or tribunal to decide what counts as a philosophical belief. 

If you want to show your beliefs are philosophical, you need to show:

  • you genuinely hold the belief

  • it’s a moral, ethical, personal or philosophical belief - not an opinion based on facts 

  • it’s about an important aspect of human life and behaviour

  • it’s serious and important

  • it’s worthy of respect in a democratic society and compatible with human dignity

Some things courts have decided are philosophical beliefs include:

  • belief in climate change

  • anti-fox hunting beliefs

Some things that courts have decided are not philosophical beliefs include:

  • believing the Holocaust didn’t happen

  • being a member of a political party

Sex

You must not be discriminated against because of your sex. The Equality Act says your sex means if you’re a man or a woman.

If you’re transgender

Legally, your sex is the sex registered on your birth certificate. 

You can change the sex on your birth certificate if you have a gender recognition certificate. 

Non-binary is not legally recognised as a sex in the UK.

If you’re intersex

Your sex must still be registered as male or female on your birth certificate. Intersex people are not legally recognised in the UK and intersex is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. You can get advice and community support for intersex people on the ICON website.

Sexuality

The Equality Act defines your sexuality as your sexual orientation to men, women or both. 

You must not be discriminated against because you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight. 

If you’re not lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight

The Equality Act is from 2010 and it doesn’t reflect the language lots of people use to describe their sexual orientation. 

If your orientation isn’t covered by the Equality Act, you might still be protected. For example if you’re pansexual, you might be able to claim protection as a bisexual.

If you’re asexual, you’re not currently protected from discrimination as an asexual. However, you might still be protected as lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight - for example if you’re asexual and you’re in a relationship.

If someone discriminates against you because they think you have a protected characteristic

If someone discriminates against you because of a protected characteristic, it might still be discrimination even if you don’t have the characteristic. This is called ‘discrimination by perception’. 

For example, it’s discrimination by perception if a pub refused to serve you and your friend because they thought you were a gay couple, even though you’re not. 

It can be discrimination by perception even if the person knows you don’t have the protected characteristic. For example, it’s discrimination by perception if your colleagues are harassing you by making jokes about you being gay - even though they know you’re not.

Discrimination by perception applies to all protected characteristics except:

  • pregnancy and maternity

  • marriage and civil partnerships

This means it’s not discrimination if someone treats you unfairly because they mistakenly think you’re pregnant, married or in a civil partnership.

If someone discriminates against you because of someone else’s protected characteristic

It might still be discrimination - for example, if a social worker treats you unfairly because of your wife and child’s ethnicity. This is called ‘discrimination by association’. 

Discrimination by association applies to all protected characteristics except:

  • pregnancy and maternity

  • marriage and civil partnerships

This means it’s not discrimination if someone treats you unfairly because you’re associated with someone who is pregnant, married or in a civil partnership.

2. Check if the person or organisation that treated you unfairly is legally responsible for discrimination

The Equality Act protects you from discrimination in the following contexts:

  • work - for example your employer or employment agency

  • education - for example your school, college or university

  • businesses or service provision - like a shop or a train company

  • health or care provision - like a hospital or care home

  • housing provision - like a landlord or estate agent

  • public service provision - for example the police or your local council

  • clubs and associations - like a sports club

If someone who works for one of these organisations discriminates against you, the organisation is also responsible for the discrimination. This is called ‘vicarious liability’. For example if your colleague discriminates against you, your colleague and your employer are both legally responsible. 

If a customer or service user discriminates against you

It isn’t usually covered by the Equality Act - unless the business or service could have stopped it happening. For example, it might be unlawful discrimination if someone at your local leisure centre regularly harasses you and the staff don’t do anything to stop it - even though you keep complaining.

3. Check if what happened is a type of discrimination under the Equality Act

The Equality Act describes what sorts of behaviour count as different types of discrimination. It calls the types of discrimination ‘prohibited conduct’. You need to check if what you experienced counts as one or more of the types of discrimination.

The types of discrimination are:

  • direct discrimination - this is when someone treats you differently and worse because of a protected characteristic

  • indirect discrimination - this is when a policy or rule has a worse effect on you because of a protected characteristic

  • harassment - this includes things like bullying or making jokes about you because of a protected characteristic

  • victimisation - this is when you complain about unlawful discrimination and then you’re treated badly

There are also extra types of discrimination you’re protected from if you’re disabled or you’re pregnant.

If you want to take action about discrimination, you’ll need to work out what type of discrimination you experienced.

You should:

If you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act

There are things you can do if you’ve experienced discrimination under the Equality Act. Discrimination isn’t a criminal offence - this means you can’t ask the police to investigate it. You’ll need to take action yourself.

You should follow these steps:

  1. Complain to the person or organisation - for example by following their formal complaints procedure

  2. Check if you can get help to solve the problem - for example through mediation or an ombudsman

  3. Take the person or organisation to court - if you can’t solve the problem without going to court

Before you take action about discrimination, you need to decide what outcome you want and the best way to achieve it. Check how to take action about discrimination.

There are time limits for taking legal action about discrimination. If you need to go to court, it’s important to act quickly - the time limits can be as little as 3 months from the date you experienced discrimination. Check what the time limits are.

If what you experienced wasn’t discrimination

You can’t take action using the Equality Act. Check if you have a different type of legal complaint or if you can solve the problem another way. 

You can:

If you’re not sure if you’ve experienced discrimination

If you need more help understanding if you’ve experienced discrimination under the Equality Act, you can talk to an adviser.

You can also contact the Equality Advisory Support Service.

An adviser won’t be able to tell you if you’ve definitely experienced discrimination - only a court can decide this. But they can help you work out if you meet the definitions in the Equality Act.

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