Core guidance: Voluntary and Community sector organisations

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Individuals using a service

Which countries is it relevant to?

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Use this list to tell you how you can in general expect a voluntary or community sector organisation 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

Be aware that sometimes, charities and religion or belief organisations can decide whether to provide services to you on the basis of particular protected characteristics. You can read more about this later on in this guide.

But the following list will help you to know how a voluntary or community sector organisation must and must not treat you in most situations.

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms:

  • An organisation must not treat you worse than someone else because of a protected characteristic (this is called direct discrimination). 

For example:

Not accepting someone as a service user because of their ethnic origin.

  • An organisation 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 organisation 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 charity which runs a drop-in centre decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to users. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every user, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be allowed to use the drop-in centre. Unless the charity can objectively justify using the rule, this is likely to be indirect discrimination.

  • If you are a disabled person, an organisation 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 knows or could reasonably be expected to know that you are a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability. 

For example: 

A community organisation runs a lunch club and has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the organisation 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 organisation can objectively justify what it has done.

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

For example:

The committee running a voluntary sector organisation refuses to allow a child to take part in their play activities because the child’s parents are a gay couple. It is likely the child has been unlawfully discriminated against because of their association with their parents’ sexual orientation.

  • An organisation must not treat you worse because they incorrectly think you have a protected characteristic (perception). 

For example:

A member of staff mistakenly thinks a woman is a transsexual person. Because of this they tell her their voluntary organisation’s activities are not open to her. It is likely the woman has been unlawfully discriminated against because of gender reassignment, even though she is not a transsexual person.

  • An organisation 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 service user supports another person’s complaint that a charity has unlawfully discriminated against them. The service user is later told that they cannot apply for any more help from the charity. If this is because of their part in supporting the complaint, this is likely to be victimisation.

  • An organisation must not harass a person. 

For example:

A member of 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 likely still to be unlawful direct discrimination because the organisation 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 an organisation as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, the organisation must make reasonable adjustments.

The voluntary or community sector organisation 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 charity provides a telephone helpline service to its clients. It installs a textphone so that people with hearing impairments can communicate with it and receive advice. It also offers the alternative of instant messaging via the internet which also removes barriers to accessing the service for people who cannot, for a variety of reasons such as visual impairment or dyslexia, make notes during a phone call.

A voluntary sector organisation provides services to support parents, including advice leaflets. It makes sure its leaflets are simply written, with pictures to illustrate what the leaflets say. This is likely to make them more accessible to people with a learning disability.

A community association holds a public meeting to discuss what additional leisure facilities are needed for the public in the local community. It ensures that the meeting is held in a venue that is accessible to people with mobility impairments and it arranges for there to be a palantypist at the meeting to transcribe what is said onto a computer. The organisation has thought about who might use its services by attending the meeting and has made a range of adjustments which it has decided are reasonable for it to make.


Because of a protected characteristic, a voluntary or community sector organisation:

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

For example:

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

An organisation must not say it will not take people with a particular religion or belief as a client (unless it comes within a charity or religion or belief exception which allows this).

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

For example:

An organisation must not stop offering home visits to disabled people who they find out have a mental health condition if they go on offering home visits 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:

An organisation must not take twice as long to make a decision about whether to help someone if this delay is because of a protected characteristic.

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

For example:

An organisation must not make it harder for you to access their services.

  • Must not put you at any other disadvantage.

An organisation can still tell you what standards of behaviour they want from you as a service user or client - for example, behaving with respect towards their staff and to other service users or clients.

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

If an organisation sets standards of behaviour for their service users or clients which have a worse impact on people who share 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 at pages [n to n].

For example:

A voluntary organisation runs a play group for young children. One child who attends has a learning disability and sometimes shouts loudly, even during rest times when children have been asked to be quiet. The play group accepts that the child does not always understand when it is appropriate to be loud or quiet. They do not treat the child as if they are being naughty. In behaving like this, the play group has made a reasonable adjustment to the standards of behaviour it applies.

If the play group did decide that the child’s behaviour was causing more significant difficulties for other children or for staff and that they have made all the adjustments it is reasonable for them to make, they would have to objectively justify stopping the child attending (in other words, withdrawing the service from the child). Otherwise, this is likely to be discrimination arising from disability and/or indirect discrimination because of the child’s disability.

  • staff behaviour
  • advertisements and marketing
  • how people access services: face to face, at a particular place, using written materials, by the internet or over the phone.

Equality good practice: what to look for if an organisation is doing more than equality law says they must do

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

If you want to be sure an organisation 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, and
  • gives equality training to everyone in the organisation who deals with service users or clients, to make sure they know the right and wrong ways to behave. 

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.


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Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.