The Equality Act 2010 has replaced nine major pieces of discrimination legislation and other ancillary measures that have been introduced over the last forty years. The core provisions of the Act came into force on 1 October 2010.
As well as harmonising existing discrimination laws, the Act aims to advance equality and to extend protection from unfairness and discrimination on grounds of disability; age; sex; sexual orientation; gender reassignment; race; religion or belief; marriage and civil partnership; and pregnancy and maternity. These are now called ‘protected characteristics’.
Whilst many of an employer’s obligations regarding discrimination in the workplace remain the same, there are some key changes that do need to be addressed as the Act extends some protections to characteristics that were not previously covered and also strengthens some aspects of equality law.
Types of Discrimination – Definitions
Direct discrimination occurs where the reason for a person being treated less favourably than another is one of the protected characteristics covered by the Act. The new definition is broad enough to cover instances where someone does not have the protected characteristic but has suffered less favourable treatment because of their association with someone who does (discrimination by association) or where the victim of less favourable treatment is wrongly thought to have a protected characteristic (perception discrimination).
Indirect discrimination occurs when a policy or practice which applies in the same way to everyone has an effect which particularly disadvantages people with a protected characteristic, unless the person applying the policy or practice can justify it by demonstrating that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Indirect discrimination can also occur when a policy would put a person at a disadvantage were it to be applied. For example, where a person is deterred from doing something, such as applying for a job, because a policy which would be applied would result in his or her disadvantage, this may also be indirect discrimination.
Indirect discrimination now covers all the protected characteristics apart from pregnancy and maternity.
Harassment is unwanted conduct that is related to a relevant protected characteristic that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or of violating the complainant’s dignity.
Harassment applies to all the protected characteristics apart from pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnership. The definition means that employees can complain of behaviour they find offensive, even if it is not directed specifically at them and the complainant need not possess the relevant protected characteristic themselves.
Third Party Harassment
Under the Act, an employer is potentially liable for harassment of an employee by a third party, for example a customer or client. This protection previously only applied on the ground of sex. It has now been extended to cover disability, age, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. It is unlawful for an employer to fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect an employee from harassment by a third party because of a protected characteristic where such harassment is known to have occurred on at least two other occasions. The person responsible for the harassment does not have to be the same on each occasion.
Victimisation takes place where one person treats another badly because he or she has, in good faith, done a ‘protected act’, for example taken action, or supported any action taken, for the purpose of the Act, including in relation to any alleged breach of its provisions. Victimisation also occurs where one person treats another badly because he or she is suspected of having done this or of intending to do so. A person is not protected where he or she maliciously makes or supports an untrue complaint. Only an individual can bring a claim for victimisation.
Under the Act, victimisation is technically no longer treated as a form of discrimination, so there is no longer a need to compare treatment of an alleged victim with that of a person who has not made or supported a complaint under the Act.
Specific Points to Note
The definition of disability remains essentially the same. A person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. However, the Act removes the requirement to consider a list of eight capacities, such as mobility or speech, hearing or eyesight, when determining whether or not a person is disabled. This change will make it easier for some people to demonstrate that they meet the definition of a disabled person.
The Act replaces the concept of disability-related discrimination with a new protection from discrimination arising from disability. This means that a person discriminates against a disabled person if they treat them unfavourably because of something arising from, or in consequence of, their disability where the employer or other person acting for the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the employee has a disability, unless the treatment can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. This definition means that there is no need for a disabled employee to establish that his or her treatment is less favourable than that experienced by other, non-disabled employees.
The concept of indirect discrimination has been extended to the protected characteristic of disability.
As before, an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help employees overcome disadvantages arising from an impairment. Failure of the duty cannot be justified. The Act makes clear that this duty includes a requirement to provide an auxiliary aid, such as job application forms in large print for someone with a visual impairment or a specially adapted computer keyboard for an employee with arthritis, if this would overcome the substantial disadvantage to the disabled person.
The Act protects people of all ages. However, different treatment because of age is not unlawful direct or indirect discrimination if the employer can justify it – i.e. can demonstrate that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Age is the only protected characteristic that allows an employer to justify direct discrimination.
The Act continues to allow employers to have a Default Retirement Age (DRA) of 65. The Government has announced that it plans to abolish this by October 2011, however. Under the proposals, there will be a six-month transition period beginning on 6 April 2011. From this date, employers will not be able to issue any notification for compulsory retirement using the DRA procedure. Between 6 April and 1 October, only employees who were notified before 6 April and whose retirement date falls before 1 October can be compulsorily retired using the DRA.
Meanwhile, where an employer has in place a normal retirement age which exceeds the age of 65, if an employee is dismissed on the grounds of retirement before he or she has reached the normal retirement age, this is capable of amounting to age discrimination and/or unfair dismissal.
Employers can continue to use the development bands of the national minimum wage without the threat of legal challenge on the grounds of age discrimination.
A transsexual person now has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.
The Act defines this as being where a person has proposed, started or completed a process to change his or her sex. Note that he or she is no longer required to be under medical supervision to come within the definition.
It is discrimination to treat transsexual people less favourably for being absent from work because they propose to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment than they would be treated if they were absent through illness or injury.
Pre-Employment Health Questionnaires
In order to protect job applicants with a disability from discrimination during the recruitment process, the Act prohibits the use of questionnaires on an applicant’s general health and related issues prior to a job offer being made. This includes prohibiting the use of such questionnaires before selecting a pool of applicants from whom the successful candidate will be chosen.
The measure does not prevent employers from asking job applicants any questions about their health but stipulates that they are only allowed to do so for specific purposes, for example deciding whether a job applicant can carry out a function that is essential (‘intrinsic’) to the work concerned.
The Act allows an employee to bring a claim of direct pay discrimination using a hypothetical comparator where no actual comparator of the opposite sex exists.
Although the Act creates a power for Ministers to require employers to publish information relating to the difference in pay between men and women (the gender pay gap), the Government has indicated that companies will be expected to tackle this issue by voluntary means.
Pay Secrecy Clauses
The Act makes pay secrecy clauses unenforceable and provides that individuals who discuss their pay with one another in order to find out if there might be pay discrimination with regard to any of the protected characteristics are protected from victimisation, even if their employment contract requires them not to discuss their pay.
As with previous equality legislation, the Act allows an employer to take ‘positive action’ in certain situations. Positive action is lawful where it is necessary to prevent those who share a particular protected characteristic from suffering a disadvantage connected with that characteristic or if their participation in an activity is disproportionately low.
The section of the Act whereby employers with two candidates for a job who are equally well qualified are permitted to take protected characteristics into account and offer the job to the one from a group that is under-represented in the workforce, is scheduled to come into force in April 2011.
Genuine Occupational Requirements
Under the Act, there is now a single occupational requirement that must exist for direct discrimination in favour of a particular protected characteristic to be lawful. This applies to all the protected characteristics and differs from the previous exceptions for occupational requirements in that it makes clear that the requirement must pursue a legitimate aim and that the burden of showing that the exception applies rests on those seeking to rely on it.
Where employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, an employer is permitted to apply a requirement to be of a particular sex or not to be a transsexual person, or to make a requirement related to the employee’s marriage or civil partnership status or sexual orientation, but only in narrowly defined circumstances.
The Burden of Proof
In any claim where someone alleges discrimination, harassment or victimisation under the Act, the burden of proving his or her case starts with the claimant. Once the claimant has established sufficient facts, which in the absence of any other explanation point to a breach having occurred, the burden then shifts to the respondent to demonstrate that no breach of the provisions of the Act has occurred.
Extension of Employment Tribunal Powers
Previously, an Employment Tribunal could only make recommendations for the benefit of the individual claimant. The Act extends this power so that Tribunals can now make recommendations that an employer takes steps to eliminate or reduce the effect of discrimination on other employees.
Claims relating to a discriminatory act that occurred wholly before 1 October 2010 will be dealt with under the previous legislation. Where the discrimination, harassment or victimisation occurred before 1 October 2010 and continues on or after that date, the claim will be dealt with under the Equality Act.
Further information and Codes of Practice supporting the Act can be found on the website of the Equality and Human Rights Commission at
Employers should ensure that their equal opportunity policies, contracts of employment and recruitment procedures are updated and that staff are informed and trained accordingly in order to comply with the provisions of the Act.
In addition, it is important to make sure that compromise agreements refer to settling claims under the Act where appropriate.
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