Equality Law

This page contains information about equality law in the UK, the duty of public authorities (including voluntary and charity sector organisations) and best practice for those delivering services. You can read Voluntary Action Harrow Co-op’s Equality Policy here [.doc].

This page brings together existing information and guides regarding equality law in the UK. You may also wish to read our factsheet, which focuses on the responsibilities of public authorities under one part of the Equality Act 2010, called the public sector Equality Duty.


  • The Equality Act 2010
  • Why the Equality Act exists
  • Who the Equality Act protects
  • Public sector Equality Duty
  • Learning more about the Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010

Equality law in the UK is covered by a single act called the Equality Act. In 2010 over 116 separate pieces of legislation were bought together and strengthened in places, to protect people from discrimination at work and when accessing services.

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination and sets out the different ways in which it’s unlawful to treat someone across Britain. The Equality and Human Rights Commission describes the Act as providing ‘a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. It provides Britain with a discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society.’ You can read their webpage on the Equality Act 2010 here and find useful guides for voluntary and charity sector organisation here.

The public sector, including voluntary and charity organisations, are required by law to abide by the Equality Act 2010. There is also a specific measure of the Act that applies to public authorities called the public sector Equality Duty. This mandates public authorities to integrate consideration of equality and good relations into day-to-day business. Public authorities of over 150 employees are required to evidence this in an annual report, as well as publishing statements on specific, measurable objectives that are accessible to the public, to further any of the aims of the General Equality Duty at least every four years.

Citizens Advice provides guidance on which organisations count as a public authority under the public sector Equality Duty here.

Welsh and Scottish ministers are able to impose specific duties on certain Welsh and Scottish public bodies through secondary legislation. Northern Ireland does not have a single equality law and current law in Northern Ireland does not reflect some of the new or extended provisions contained within the Equality Act 2010.

You can read the Equality Act 2010 in full here, the easy read version here, government guidance to the Act here and a government quick start guide to public sector Equality Duty here. This page summarises the most important things for you to know as a voluntary or charity sector worker.

Why the Equality Act exists

The Equality Act exists in order to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society as well as mandating public authorities to proactively prevent discrimination through the Equality Duty. These protections were hard-won through campaigning and organising, to secure legal protection and promote equality in all spheres of life.

The legislation which formed the Equality Duty was secured through the struggle of marginalised people and groups, who organised to advocate for their rights. For example, disabled activists fought for the Disability Discrimination Act (now part of the Equality Act) through protest and lobbying and continue to advocate for further reforms to existing law.

The public sector Equality Duty has its foundation in the public inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. In July 1997, more than four years after Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a group of white youths, the then home secretary Jack Straw announced the establishment of an inquiry into his death. The subsequent report (the Macpherson report) made over 70 recommendations and concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service was ‘institutionally racist’ in its investigation of the murder.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission states:

‘It was clear [following the Macpherson report] that a radical rethink was needed in the approach that public sector organisations took towards addressing discrimination and racism – that the onus needed to shift from individuals to organisations, placing for the first time an obligation on public authorities to positively promote equality, not merely to avoid discrimination.’

This obligation initially took the form of the Race Equality Duty in 2001, followed by the Disability Equality Duty in 2006, and the Gender Equality Duty in 2007. All of these duties are now part of the Equality Act 2010.

Who the Equality Act protects

The Equality Act protects us all by making it against the law to discriminate against or harass someone because of a protected characteristic. We all have more than one of the 9 protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010.

The 9 protected characteristics include:

There are some important differences depending on which protected characteristic you have which are summarised in an ‘at a glance’ chart on page 5 of this ACAS resource.

There are four types of discrimination defined by the Equality Act 2010 – these definitions are taken from the Equality and Human Rights Commission wesbite.

Direct Discrimination

There are exemptions and exceptions where discrimination is lawful, these are limited circumstances where an employer can objectively justify discrimination as ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.’ This includes specifying, in certain and rare instances, that applicants for a job must have a particular protected characteristic under the Equality Act or taking ‘positive action’ in the workplace or during recruitment to mitigate existing inequalities which disadvantage people with certain protected characteristics.

There are ongoing campaigns to improve the Equality Act 2010 and ensure that it protects everyone against discrimination. Sometimes case law furthers or confirms the rights of certain people to protection, such as the cases highlighted in this article from Personnel Today.

Public Sector Equality Duty

All public authorities are legally obliged to adhere to the The Equality Act 2010. The act protects you from discrimination at work, in education, as a consumer, when using public services, buying or renting a property and as a member or guest of a private club or association. And there is a measure of the Equality Act called the Equality Duty that outlines the duty of public bodies to consider the needs of all individuals in their day to day work – in shaping policy, in delivering services, and in relation to their own employees.

The Government Equalities Office guide to the Public Sector Equality Duty provides a clear information about what this might mean for you and your organisation.

The Equality Duty requires public bodies to have due regard to what are known as the three aims, pillars or general duties. These are to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct prohibited by the Act.
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission states in their Equality Duty FAQs that ‘due regard’ means a public authority consciously considers the three aims of the General Equality Duty and that the amount of regard ‘due’ is dependent on the relevance and potential impact for any group.

There are also what’s known as ‘specific duties’ for public authorities to carry out, which evidence their compliance with the Equality Duty. These are to:

  • Publish information to show their compliance with the Equality Duty, at least annually.
  • Set and publish equality objectives, at least every four years.

You can read the regulation that determines the success of your specific duties on pages pages 2 – 5 of this document provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Pages 3 – 7 of this Government Equalities Office guidance outline what information should be published, how to set objectives and how to ensure this information is accessible to the public. The information you include will vary greatly depending on the size and scope of your organisation, and there is no prescribed format.

People throughout your organisation should have an awareness of the Equality Duty. On page 6 of this guide to the Equality Duty is a list of positions – from trustees to frontline and procurement staff – with a description of the role they should play in delivering on the Equality Duty.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is responsible for assessing compliance with and enforcing the Equality Duty. It has powers to issue compliance notices to public bodies that have failed to comply and can apply to the courts for an order requiring compliance. The Equality Duty can also be enforced by judicial review. This can be done by the Commission or any individual or group of people with an interest.

Learning more about the Equality Act 2010

 If you are responsible for human resources and/or fulfilling the Equality Duty.

If you’d like to find out more about equality and anti-discrimination regarding:


  • Scope are the disability equality charity in England and Wales. They provide practical information and emotional support when it’s most needed and campaign relentlessly to create a fairer society. They provide information and advice on disability hate crime here.
  • Disability Rights UK provides information, advice and support for disabled people. They represent disabled people’s rights through campaigning and consultancy. They also run helplines for disabled students and a welfare rights helpline for member organisations. They cover information about disability hate crime here.

Race or ethnicity

  • CORE (formerly the Coalition of BME VCS organisations) brings together many of the UK’s leading black and minority ethnic voluntary and community organisations for the promotion of race equality. Many of the organisations involved can provide support and advice regarding hate crime based on race or ethnicity in your area.
  • The Runnymede Trust is the leading independent race equality think tank. They generate intelligence to challenge race inequality in Britain through research, network building, leading debate, and policy engagement.

Religion or belief

  • Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) is a secure and reliable service that allows people from across England to report any form of Anti-Muslim abuse. We have created a unique portal where you may address your concerns and record any incident that you experience as a result of your Muslim faith or someone perceiving you to be Muslim.
  • CST is an organisation protecting the Jewish Community. They help those who are victims of antisemitic hatred, harassment or bias. CST also promotes good relations between British Jews and the rest of British society, represents British Jews on issues of racism, antisemitism, extremism, policing and security as well as facilitating jewish life.

Sexual orientation and/or gender identity

  • GALOP can help if you experience homophobia, transphobia or biphobia anywhere, including at home, in public, at work, online or in cruising sites. Our hate crime casework service can give you advice, support and help.
  • Stonewall campaigns for LGBT+ inclusion and rights.


  • Age UK offer information and support at a national and local level to inspire, enable and support older people. They have an advice line running all year round.