Discrimination in providing goods and services

Discrimination is when a trader or service provider treats you differently and worse than someone else because of who you are.

If you have been treated unfairly when you buy or receive goods or services from someone dealing with the public such as a shop, bank, energy provider or local authority and it is because of who you are then it could be illegal discrimination.

Illegal discrimination can be on the grounds of your:

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

There are numerous exceptions, some are common sense and others are more surprising. It would be impossible to list them all here, but I have listed some below.

Separate services for men and women

This is legal if it is less effective to provide services to men and women together, or there is a good enough reason for providing separate services determined by whether it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. This could be due to health and safety, the welfare of individuals or running an efficient service.

A trader or service provider might not have a good enough reason if there are less discriminatory ways of doing the same thing. They would need to show the reason for discriminating against you is fairly balanced against the disadvantage you have suffered because of the discrimination.

So, for example, a service provider might provide single-sex services if they have a good enough reason when:

  • only one sex needs the service – for example, post-natal classes for women
  • it is a more effective way to provide the service – for example, a father’s support group where men do not attend the parents’ support group
  • the services are of a type where you would object to the presence of person of the opposite sex – for example, changing rooms or a service involving personal hygiene
  • communal accommodation – for example, women only dormitories in a hostel
  • the service involves a high degree of physical contact – for example, self-defence or judo classes

Insurance providers and disability discrimination

An insurance provider can discriminate against you if there is a greater insurance risk because of your disability. This means they can use your disability to decide whether to offer you insurance and on what terms it is being offered. However, they must base their risk assessments on information from a reliable source and one which is relevant to the product they are providing. Insurance providers are not allowed to have any general policies of refusing to provide insurance or only providing insurance on certain terms, to disabled people.

Age discrimination

This probably has more exceptions than any other form of discrimination.  For example, it’s not unlawful for a holiday company to offer holidays for some age groups only – for example, over 50s cruises or Club 18-30 holidays. But the purpose of the holiday must be to bring together people of the same age and the holiday must include travel and accommodation.

Businesses selling goods like alcohol, fireworks and cigarettes can ask for proof of age if they think you are under-age. They can refuse to serve you if you cannot prove how old you are. This is not unlawful age discrimination.

Businesses are allowed to offer concessions or discounts based on age – for example, cheaper access to leisure facilities for 18-25 year olds, or pensioner lunch deals.

Residential mobile home parks are allowed to set minimum age limits for people who want to live there. Many sites restrict residence to people aged 50 or over. Site owners must set out the age restriction clearly in the purchase or rental agreement covering the use of the home. This restriction doesn’t apply to site visitors, or to holiday parks or homes.

It’s not unlawful under the Equality Act for sporting tournaments and other competitions, like tennis, football or chess, to set age bands for those who want to compete.

There are laws which say people can be treated differently based on their age. For example, free TV licences for people aged 75 and over, winter fuel allowance for pensioners, and free bus passes for pensioners.

If you have any questions regarding discrimination then please ask to speak with our Employment and Dispute Resolution Expert, Justin Sadler.

Further reading

Is Positive Discrimination Illegal?

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