Core guidance: Using businesses that offer goods, facilities and services to the public

New guidance

The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. The information on this page reflects changes to the law.

Use this list to tell you how you can expect a business to treat you.

Protected characteristics

Make sure you know what is meant by:

  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity (which includes breastfeeding)
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Then you will know how you fit into each of these protected characteristics. 

View a detailed list of the protected characteristics

What is unlawful discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms: 

  • A business must not treat you worse because of one or more of your protected characteristics (this is called direct discrimination). 

For example:

A shop will not serve someone because of their ethnic origin.

A nightclub charges a higher price for entry to a man because of their sex where the service provided to a woman is otherwise exactly the same.

  • A business must not do something which has (or would have ) a worse impact on you and on other people who share a particular protected characteristic than it has on people who do not share that characteristic. Unless the business can show that what they have done is objectively justified, this will be what is called indirect discrimination. ‘Doing something’ can include making a decision, or applying a rule or way of doing things. 

For example: 

A shop decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to customers. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every customer, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be able to use the shop. Unless the shop can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.

  • If you are a disabled person, a business must not treat you unfavourably because of something connected to your disability where they cannot show that what they are doing is objectively justified. This only applies if the business knows or could reasonably have been expected to know that you are a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability.

For example: 

A shop has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the shop bars a disabled person who uses an assistance dog, not because of their disability but because they have a dog with them, this would be discrimination arising from disability unless the shop can objectively justify what it has done.

  • A business must not treat you worse than someone else because you are associated with a person who has a protected characteristic. 

For example: 

A café refuses to serve a customer who has a disabled child with them.

  • A business must not treat you worse than someone else because they incorrectly think you have a protected characteristic (perception). 

For example:

A member of staff in a pub tells a woman that they will not serve her because they think she is a transsexual person.

  • A business must not treat you badly or victimise you because you have complained about discrimination or helped someone else complain, or done anything to uphold your own or someone else’s equality law rights. 

For example: 

A customer complains that a member of staff in a café told her she was not allowed to breastfeed her baby except in the toilets. Because she has complained, the café tells her she is barred altogether. This is almost certainly victimisation.

  • A business must not harass you. 

For example: 

A member of staff in a nightclub is verbally abusive to a customer in relation to a protected characteristic.

Note: Even where the behaviour does not come within the equality law definition of harassment (for example, because it is related to religion or belief or sexual orientation), it is still likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because the business is giving the service to you on worse terms than it would give someone who did not have the same protected characteristic. 

In addition, to make sure that, if you are a disabled person, you can use the services of a business as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, the business must make reasonable adjustments.

The business is not allowed to wait until a disabled person wants to use its services, but must think in advance about what people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability.

For example: 

A bank branch has a flight of steps up to its entrance but it is not permitted by the local authority to build a ramp because this would block the pavement. The bank installs a platform lift so that disabled people with mobility impairments can get into the branch. This is a reasonable adjustment.

You can read more about making reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people. 

What does this mean for a business?

Because of a protected characteristic, a business and anyone working for them: 

  • Must not refuse to serve you or refuse to take you on as a client. 

For example: 

They must not refuse to serve a woman who is breastfeeding a baby.

They must not say they will not take people with a particular religion or belief as a client.

  • Must not stop serving or working for you if they still serve or work for other customers or clients who do not have the same protected characteristic in the same circumstances. 

For example:

A business must not stop offering home visits to disabled people that they find out have a mental health condition if they go on offering them to other clients. That is likely to be unlawful disability discrimination.

  • Must not give you a service of a worse quality or in a worse way than they would usually provide the service. 

For example:

They must not keep someone waiting for service twice as long as usual because of a protected characteristic.

  • Must not give you a service with worse terms than they would usually offer. 

For example: 

They must not charge someone with a particular protected characteristic a higher deposit when they hire something from the business.

  • Must not put you at any other disadvantage.

A business can still tell you what standards of behaviour they want from you as a customer or client for example, behaving with respect towards their staff and to other customers.

Sometimes, how someone behaves may be linked to a protected characteristic.

If a business sets standards of behaviour for their customers or clients which have a worse impact on people with a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not have that characteristic, they need to make sure that they can objectively justify what they have done. Otherwise, it will be indirect discrimination.

If they do set standards of behaviour, they must make reasonable adjustments to the standards for disabled people and avoid discrimination arising from disability. You can read more about reasonable adjustments in The duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people.

For example:

A couple and their teenage child who has a learning disability sit down in a café. Because of her disability, the child speaks and laughs loudly. One of the staff tells the family they will have to leave if their child is not quiet, even though the parents explain why the child is making a noise. If the child’s behaviour is not causing any significant difficulties for other customers or for staff, it would probably be hard for the café to objectively justify telling the family to leave (in other words, withdraw the service from them), so doing so is likely to be discrimination arising from disability and/or indirect discrimination because of the child’s disability. The right approach would be for the staff first to make a reasonable adjustment to the standard they expected and only then to decide if the child’s behaviour was still unacceptable (which is unlikely).

Exceptions: There are some exceptions to the general rules of equality law, when the law may apply differently in some circumstances. You can read more next about when these exceptions may apply. Check if any of them apply to the business or situation you are dealing with. 

Do any of the exceptions in equality law apply to the business or situation I am dealing with?

There are some exceptions to the general rules of equality law, when your protected characteristics may be relevant to the goods, facilities or services someone provides. For businesses, these are:

  • Services for particular groups:
    • Services provided for people with a particular protected characteristic.
    • Separate services for men and women or single-sex services.
  • Where health and safety considerations apply to pregnant women.

As well as these exceptions, equality law allows a business to treat disabled people more favourably than non-disabled people. The aim of the law in allowing this is to remove barriers that disabled people would otherwise face to accessing services.

For example:

A hairdresser visits a disabled client at home when they do not usually provide home visits, as the client has a mobility impairment that makes the sinks at the salon unsuitable for washing their hair.

A music venue gives two tickets for the price of one to disabled people who need to bring someone with them to assist them.

It also may be possible for a business to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action if it can show that they have a different need or a past track record of disadvantage or low participation in its activities. It does not have to do this: positive action is completely voluntary.

This could include, for example, offering a discount on its services if this would be a proportionate step to take. A business needs to go through a number of steps to decide whether it is needed and what sort of action to take before it can be sure what it wants to do is allowed.

If you want to know more about whether this applies to your situation, you can read about it in the Glossary.

Services for particular groups

There are some situations in which a business can provide (or refuse to provide) all or some of their services to people based on a protected characteristic:

Services provided to people with a particular protected characteristic

If a business normally supplies services only for people with a particular characteristic (such as women or people of African Caribbean descent), it can carry on providing the service the same way.

For example:

A butcher only sells meat from animals which have been slaughtered in a way that conforms to particular religious requirements goods (Halal or Kosher meat). The butcher does not have to sell non-Halal or non-Kosher meat, even though this means that Muslim and Jewish people are more likely to be customers than others. However, the butcher cannot refuse to sell the Halal or Kosher meat to customers who are not Muslim or Jewish.

The business can refuse to provide the service to someone who does not have that characteristic if the business reasonably thinks it is impracticable for it to provide them with the service.

A business can also target their advertising or marketing at a group with particular protected characteristics, as long as they do not suggest they will not serve people with a particular characteristic (unless one of the exceptions applies). You can read more about advertising and marketing.

Separate services for men and women and single-sex services

A business is allowed to provide separate services for men and women where providing a joint service (ie one where men and women are provided with exactly the same service) would not be as effective. They are also allowed to provide separate services for men and women in different ways or to a different level where:

  • providing a joint service would not be as effective, and
  • the extent to which the service is required by one sex makes it not reasonably practicable to provide the service except in the different ways or to the different level.

In each case, the business needs to be able to objectively justify what they are doing. 

A business is allowed to provide single-sex services (services just for men or just for women) where this is objectively justified and:

  • only men or only women require the service, or
  • there is joint provision for both sexes but that is not enough on its own, or
  • if the service were provided for men and women jointly, it would not be as effective and the extent to which each sex requires the service makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services for each sex, or
  • the services are provided in a hospital or other place where users need special care, supervision or attention (or in parts of such an establishment), or
  • the services may be used by more than one person at the same time and a woman might reasonably object to the presence of a man (or vice versa), or
  • the services may involve physical contact between a user and someone else and that other person may reasonably object if the user is of the opposite sex.

For example:

At a commercial gym and swimming pool, women-only swimming sessions could be provided as well as mixed sessions 

Separate services for men and women could be provided by a beauty therapist where intimate personal health or hygiene is involved

A healthcare provider can offer services only to men or only to women, such as particular types of health screening for conditions that only affect men or only affect women.

Generally, a business which is providing separate services or single-sex services should treat a transsexual person according to the sex in which the transsexual person presents (as opposed to the physical sex they were born with, as it is unlawful to discriminate aginst someone because of gender reassignment  Although a business can exclude a transsexual person or provide them with a different service, this is only if it can objectively justify doing so.

A business may have a policy about providing its services to transsexual users, but this policy must still be applied on a case-by-case basis.  It is necessary to balanace the needs of the transsexual person for the service and the disadvantage to them if they are refused access to it, against then needs of other users, and any disadvantage to them, if the transsexual person is allowed access.  To do this may require discussion with service users (maintaining confidentiality for the transsexual service user).  Care should be taken in each case to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice.

 Where a transsexual person is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from someone of their preferred gender, they should normally be treated according to their accquired gender unless there are strong reasons not to do so. Businesses and their staff should take care to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice, as this may lead to unlawful discrimination.

Where someone has a gender recognition certificate they should be treated in their acquired gender for all purposes and therefore should not be excluded from single sex services.

Health and safety for pregnant women

A business can refuse to provide a service to a pregnant woman, or set conditions on the service, because they reasonably believe that providing the service in the usual way would create a risk to the woman’s health or safety, and they would do the same thing in relation to a person whose health and safety might be at risk because of a different physical condition.

For example:

The owner of a fairground bumper-car ride displays a notice which states that the ride is unsuitable for people with back injuries. When they also refuse to allow a pregnant woman to go on the ride, this is likely to be allowed because of this exception.

A beauty therapist refuses a particular treatment to a pregnant woman which they would also refuse to someone who had a heart condition. This is likely to be allowed because of this exception. 

Equality good practice: what to look for if a business is doing more than equality law requires

This guide tells you what equality law says businesses must and must not do to avoid unlawful discrimination.

If you want to be sure a business takes equality seriously, find out if it:

  • uses an equality policy to help it check that it has thought about equality in the way it plans what it does and how it does it
  • gives equality training to everyone in the business who deals with customers or clients, to make sure they know the right and wrong ways to behave.

If equality matters to you, think about rewarding businesses who do more than the law requires.

More information

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