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The Equality Act: Your legal duties

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This page explains some key aspects of the Equality Act 2010 as they apply to voluntary organisations.

All voluntary organisations must comply with their legal duties. There can be significant consequences if they fail to do so. However, effective action on equity, diversity and inequality requires more than legal compliance. Learn more about these concepts on our page to help you get started with equity, diversity and inclusion.

Protection from discrimination

People are protected against discrimination because of protected characteristics that we all have. Under the Equality Act, there are nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Protection also applies when someone is perceived to have one of the protected characteristics. It also applies where they are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic. Your legal protection can be different depending on which protected characteristic you have. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has details on who is protected

Unlawful discrimination

Unlawful discrimination can take place in many ways. They can happen when you:

  • are an employee of an organisation
  • access their services
  • are a member of an organisation.

Examples of the different types are as follows.

  • Direct discrimination: treating one person worse than another because of a protected characteristic.
  • Indirect discrimination: a rule, policy or way of doing things that applies in the same way for everybody, but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic.
  • Harassment: unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or which creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for someone with a protected characteristic.
  • Victimisation: treating someone unfavourably because they have taken (or might be taking) action under the Equality Act or supporting somebody who is.
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments: where an organisation unreasonably doesn't change the way things are done, the physical features of a space or provide aids so that a disabled person is no longer substantially disadvantaged.

When do these laws apply?

Different legal rules can apply to organisations depending on how they are run and what they do. Every organisation will need to consider whether they have legal duties. Importantly some legal duties can apply to any organisation regardless of their size or turnover. 

You may have legal duties if your organisation:

  • provides goods, facilities or services
  • lets or manages premises
  • is an employer
  • is a membership association (an organisation that has 25 or more members which have rules regulating who can be a member and there is a genuine selection process for membership)
  • is a trade organisation of employers or has a membership who carry out a particular trade or profession 
  • carries out some specific activities (like providing education, transportation, housing or is a landlord). 

If you want to learn more:

For more detailed guidance, see the Equality and Human Rights Commission general guidance and their statutory codes of practice which set out authoritative advice about legal duties.

Public Sector Equality Duty

This is a legal duty on public authorities - like local authorities and NHS bodies - and organisations carrying out public functions. 

Its purpose is for public authorities to consider how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act. It aims to integrate consideration of equality and good relations into the day-to-day workings of organisations.

Those under the duty must actively consider, when they deliver their public functions, the need to:   

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • advance equality of opportunity between different groups
  • foster good relations between different groups.

Voluntary organisations can be affected by this when:

  • they deliver services or activities under contract on behalf of a public authority and the contract requires them to comply with these duties.
  • if they themselves have a public function. In general, this is where a voluntary organisation is carrying out activities on behalf of the state. There are specific legal rules which define whether or not and when a voluntary organisation is carrying out a public function. 

If you want to learn more:

How is the duty is enforced

The Equality and Human Rights Commission enforces compliance with the duty. Where some under the Public Sector Equality Duty are not meeting their responsibilities, a claim for judicial review could be made. This could be done by a person or a group of people with an interest in the matter. 

Voluntary organisations have used the law to challenge public bodies which they feel are not meeting their duties. For example, when public bodies reduce their budgets and fail to show they have considered the impact on certain groups.

If you want to learn more:  

Making decisions on restricting who your charity works with

Charities must follow legal rules if their governing documents restrict people - who share a protected characteristic - from benefiting from the charity’s activities. These rules also apply to organisations applying to be a charity. 

For example, a charity is set up to improve the health of a particular sexual orientation. The charity can only follow the restriction to people of a particular sexual orientation if health is particularly poor for this group. The trustees must be satisfied that health is poorer for the group it is working with than for the general population.

There are specific legal rules for charities that restrict benefits to members of a particular religion. No charity is allowed to discriminate on the basis of skin colour. Read detailed guidance about exemptions for charities published by the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission has also issued guidance to trustees when considering one or more of their charity’s aims. You can read guidance on charities promoting social inclusion and promoting equality and diversity by the Charity Commission here.

Where can I learn more or get help about equality law

Find more information and guidance below.

NCVO members receive discounts from our HR Trusted Suppliers who can assist you.

Last reviewed: 20 August 2020

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 20 August 2020

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