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Discrimination in the provision of goods and services - what's the unfair treatment?

This advice applies to Wales

If you’ve been treated unfairly by a trader or a service provider, like a shop, bank or energy provider, you might have been discriminated against.

The law that covers this is called the Equality Act 2010.

Why you’ve been treated unfairly

It’s only discrimination if a trader or service provider treats you unfairly because of:

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

The Equality Act calls these ‘protected characteristics’. Marriage and civil partnership are also protected characteristics, but they only apply in the workplace.

Sometimes traders are allowed to discriminate because of age - check when traders and service providers can discriminate by age.

Find out more about protected characteristics.

Types of discrimination 

You might have been discriminated against if a trader or service provider:

  • refuses to provide you with goods or services, or stops providing you with goods or services
  • gives you goods that are worse quality or a service on worse terms - for example, charging you more or making you wait longer
  • causes you any other harm or disadvantage when providing you with goods or services

Only some types of behaviour by a trader or service provider are considered discrimination under the Equality Act.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when a trader or service provider treats you differently and worse than someone else because of a protected characteristic. For example, you try to book a room in a B&B for you and your same-sex partner but the owner refuses to give you a double bedroom because you are in a same-sex relationship. This is direct discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Read more about direct discrimination by traders and service providers.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when a trader or service provider has a policy that applies to everyone so it seems fair, but it disadvantages people who share a protected characteristic. For example, a shop doesn’t allow customers to cover their heads so people who cover their heads for religious reasons can’t enter the shop. This could be indirect discrimination because of religion.

Indirect discrimination can be lawful if the trader has a good reason for the policy. For example, an activity centre says customers must wear protective helmets and clothing for some activities. This could disadvantage people who wear religious clothing - but the activity centre can justify the policy for health and safety reasons.

Read more about indirect discrimination by traders and service providers.

Reasonable adjustments for disabled people

Traders and service providers must make adjustments if:

  • the way they do things might disadvantage disabled customers
  • it’s reasonable to make the changes to remove the disadvantage

For example, you're visually impaired and ask a phone shop assistant to provide a copy of an instruction manual for a new smartphone in large print. The assistant refuses, saying it's accessible online. A reasonable adjustment would be to have a large-print version of the manual for customers to read in the shop.

Traders should anticipate what reasonable adjustments disabled customers will need. This means they should have already made the reasonable adjustment, but if they haven’t you can ask for one.

Read more about traders and service providers’ responsibility to make reasonable adjustments.

Discrimination connected to your disability

Discrimination arising from disability is when you’re treated unfairly because of something connected to your disability, and not the disability itself. For example, you have a visual impairment and a shop owner refuses to let you in the shop because you have an assistance dog.

Read more about discrimination by traders and service providers because of something connected to your disability.

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is when you’re treated unfairly because:

  • you’re pregnant
  • you’ve had a baby within the last 26 weeks
  • you’re breastfeeding and you had the baby within the last 26 weeks

You don’t have to show you’ve been treated differently to someone else. You just need to show you’ve been disadvantaged or treated badly because you’re pregnant or recently had a baby.

For example, you’re breastfeeding your baby in a museum and a member of staff asks you to leave because other visitors have complained. This is unlawful maternity discrimination.

Read more about maternity discrimination by traders and service providers.

Harassment

Harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behaviour that you find offensive or makes you feel intimidated or humiliated. This could be abusive or threatening comments, jokes or behaviour. Only some types of harassment are unlawful under the Equality Act.

Harassment by a trader or service provider is unlawful discrimination if it’s related to:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • sex

For example, you’re eating in a restaurant and you overhear the waiting staff making transphobic jokes about you, which makes you feel embarrassed and intimidated. This is harassment.

Read more about harassment by traders and service providers.

Victimisation

Victimisation is when someone treats you badly because you complain about discrimination or help someone who has been the victim of discrimination. For example, the bar staff at your local pub racially abused one of your friends. You complained to the manager about it and he barred you from the pub. This is victimisation.

Read more about victimisation by traders and service providers.

Next steps

Get more help

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

You can get more information about discrimination by traders and service providers on the EHRC website.

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