What equality law means for your membership of an association

Advice and Guidance

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Membership just for people who share a protected characteristic

An association (except for a political party) may, if it chooses to, restrict its membership to people who share a protected characteristic. 

For example:

  • A club for deaf people can restrict membership to people who are deaf and would not need to admit people with other disabilities, such as a blind person.
  • An association of blind people of a particular ethnic origin, such as Chinese, could restrict its membership to people who belong to both these groups.
  • A gardening club for men does not have to admit women as members.
  • An association for Christian women does not have to admit women of beliefs other than Christianity, nor does it have to admit men whether Christian or of any other belief.

But membership must not be solely on the basis of someone’s colour. For example, an association cannot say it will only accept white people or black people as members, and cannot offer different terms of membership on the basis of colour. 

An association (except for a political party) may, if it chooses to, restrict access by associate members and guests to people who share the same protected characteristics as the members of the association.

For example, a women-only club could, if it chose, refuse to accept guests or associate members of the opposite sex. So could a men-only club.

A club for transsexual people could, if it chose, to refuse to admit someone’s guest if that person was not a transsexual person.

A club for gay men does not have to accept straight men or straight women or lesbians as associate members or guests.

If you are pregnant, an association (though not a political party) may be allowed to restrict your access to a benefit or service in the short term. This applies if it is reasonable for the association to believe that giving access would create a risk to your health or safety and it would do the same thing in relation a person whose health and safety might be at risk because of a different physical condition.

For example:

A woman who is a member of a hang-gliding club is heavily pregnant. The club can restrict her access to the full activities of the club until after she has given birth as it is reasonable to believe that some activities would create a risk to her health or safety, and the club would do the same thing in relation to members with different physical conditions. If the woman is not yet a member but wants to join, the club must not refuse her membership all together just because of health and safety concerns, but it could restrict her activities while she is pregnant.

Other than if it has been set up specifically for people who share a protected characteristic, an association cannot refuse membership to a potential member or grant it on less favourable terms because of a protected characteristic.

For example:

A men’s amateur rugby club can refuse women who apply to join but it cannot reject men because of their race or their sexual orientation.

In addition, an association cannot offer membership terms, benefits and services that are directly discriminatory or indirectly discriminatory.

For example:

A tennis club cannot charge a woman a higher joining fee than a man even if it has a reason for this, such as saying that women are likely to use the facilities more often. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of sex. A better approach would be to charge members different rates according to when or how much they use the facilities.

If the club does decide to set up a cheaper class of membership for people who use the club less often, then both forms of membership must be open to everyone on the same terms. It would not be acceptable to have one type of membership for women and a different, lesser type of membership for men, or the other way round.

However, it may be possible for an association to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action if it can show that they have a different need or a track record of disadvantage or low participation in its activities. This could include, for example, offering reduced rate membership if this would be a proportionate step to take. An association which is thinking about taking positive action needs to go through a number of steps to decide whether it is needed and what sort of action to take.

In addition, equality law allows you to treat disabled people better - or more favourably - than non-disabled people without this being unlawful discrimination against 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 club gives disabled people a discount on their membership.

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
Textphone: 0808 800 0084

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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closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays

Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.