Core guidance: Local government and central services

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Individuals using a service

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • England flag icon


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Guidance for service users on how you can expect a local council or government department or other public body to treat you.

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

Unlawful discrimination, in other words, treating some people worse than others because of a protected characteristic can take a number of different forms:

  • A service provider must not treat you worse than someone just because of one or more of your protected characteristics (this is called direct discrimination). 

For example:

If a public body refused to investigate a person’s complaint because they had a mental health condition.

  • A service provider 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 on people who do not share that characteristic. Unless the service provider 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 local council decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to anyone who enters its buildings. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every service users, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be allowed to use the council’s buildings. Unless the council can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.
  • if you are a disabled person, a service provider 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 organisation knew or could reasonably have been expected to know that you are a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability. 

For example: 

A disabled person with Tourette Syndrome is excluded from a public meeting because the organiser believes the person's vocal tics are distracting to the audience. The person is treated unfavourably because of their vocal tics, which is something arising from their disability.  Unless the service provider holding the meeting can show that the decision to exclude the person is objectively justified, this will be discrimination arising from disability.

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

For example:

A member of staff working for a public body does not approve of relationships between people of different religions or beliefs. They give a poor service to a Christian they discover is married to a Muslim. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of religion or belief, based on the Christian’s association with their Muslim spouse.

  • A service provider must not treat you worse because they incorrectly think you have a protected characteristic (perception). 

For example:

A member of staff mistakenly thinks a man is gay. Because of this they tell him a service is not open to him. It is likely the man has been unlawfully discriminated against because of sexual orientation, even though he is not gay.

  • A service provider 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 person complains that they were not properly consulted about a new building development and that this was because of their race. If the council then withdrew any service from them or otherwise treated them worse than any other service user, this would almost certainly be victimisation.

  • A service provider must not harass you. 

For example:

A member of a service provider’s support staff is verbally abusive to a service user 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 service provider 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 public services as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, a service provider must make reasonable adjustments.

The service provider is not allowed to wait until you or another disabled person want 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 council tax office sends out questionnaires to people claiming council tax benefits along with the claim forms asking if they have any needs related to a disability that they wish to tell the office about and whether the office can take any steps to assist with their claims. This shows that the office is considering the need to make reasonable adjustments, which is an example of the right sort of approach.

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

Because of a protected characteristic, a service provider:

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

For example:

A local authority refuses to remove an abandoned vehicle outside a resident's home because they have a protected characteristic, but would otherwise have removed the vehicle.

  • Must not stop serving or working for you if they still serve or work for other service users who do not have the same protected characteristic.

For example:

A local authority stops collecting garden waste from a resident because they have a particular protected characteristic, but still collects garden waste from residents without that protected characteristic.

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

For example:

A local authority takes twice as long to decide whether to grant planning permission to a resident because they have a particular protected characteristic than it takes with other residents.

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

For example:

A library charges higher fines for users with certain protected characteristics than it would charge users without those characteristics.

  • Must not put you at any other disadvantage.

For example:

A receptionist at the town hall is unhelpful when asked for information about garden allotments by a resident because they have a particular protected characteristic. The receptionist is helpful to other enquirers who do not have that protected characteristic.

A service provider can still tell you what standards of behaviour they want from you as a service user. For example, behaving with respect towards their staff and to other service users.

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

If a service provider sets standards of behaviour for their service users 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. 

Remember, a service provider may refuse you a service because of a judgment about your needs as a service user. Or they may provide you with a different service to that which they provide to other people.

The important question is whether what the service provider has done is different because of an assessment of your needs as a service user. 

The reason for the way the service provider has acted will probably be important:

  • Did they do something because of a protected characteristic which:
    • is yours or
    • belongs to someone you are associated with, or
    • is a protected characteristic they incorrectly thought you had?
  • Or has what they have done had a worse impact on you and other people with the same protected characteristic? If so, their reason might help you work out if what they have done is objectively justified.
  • Or, if you are a disabled person, have you been treated badly because of something connected to (or as the law puts it, arising from) your disability? Or has the service provider failed to make reasonable adjustments?
  • Or does what they have done count as more favourable treatment for disabled people (which is not unlawful discrimination against you if you are a non-disabled person), or positive action, or does it come within any of the exceptions which are explained later in this guide? 
  • If you believe that what they did was harassment, does it relate to a protected characteristic?

If you believe you have been victimised, what did you do to uphold your own or someone else’s equality law rights that has led to your worse treatment now?

If you want help in working out if the service provider is acting within equality law, or to complain about what it has done, you can read more about how to do this in: What to do if you believe you’ve been discriminated against.

Equality good practice: what to look for if a service provider is doing more than equality law says they must do

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

If you want to be sure a service provider 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 who deals with service users or makes decisions about how services are provided to make sure they know what equality law means for them.

Last updated: 02 Mar 2020

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


Opening hours:

9am to 7pm Monday to Friday
10am to 2pm Saturday
closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays

Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.