The Equality Act - What you need to know


The new Equality Act 2010 is now in force, with most of its provisions taking effect on 1 October alongside plans to phase in the remainder by 2013.

Not unlike the 'old' equality law, the Act makes it unlawful to treat a person less favourably simply because they have a 'protected characteristic'. This means the Equality Act protects against discrimination because of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Employment Law Specialists

There are no changes to the existing framework of protection against direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation in employment and occupation. But the purpose of the Equality Act is to strengthen protection from discrimination and promote workplace equality so it’s hardly surprising to see that some inconsistencies in the old law have now been ironed out.

So what’s changed?

The Equality Act removes the anomalies that existed in the old equality laws by, for instance, defining indirect discrimination more clearly and simplifying what is meant by harassment. It also retains certain provisions where a different approach is considered justified in order to address inequality, for example, by preserving the positive duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people - all of which will make it easier for workers and employers to understand and follow.

The Act makes it unlawful to directly discriminate against workers who are perceived to have, or are associated with someone who has, a protected characteristic, e.g. a worker who is the carer of a disabled person or a worker who is wrongly perceived to be gay.

Disability-related discrimination is now more clearly defined in the Act offering disabled people protection against unfavourable treatment because of something that arises in consequence of their disability.

The Equality Act also extends the powers of Employment Tribunals to make recommendations that benefit not only the successful claimant but which may involve changing workplace practices for the benefit of all workers.

Although the definition of harassment has been streamlined under the Act the types of behaviour, jokes or 'banter' which are currently unacceptable (and could lead to an employment tribunal claim) are unlikely to change;

Employers may be liable if their workers suffer harassment from 'third-parties' such as customers or clients but only where the employer, having twice been notified of the harassment, fails to take reasonable steps to address it.

The Act restricts the ability of employers to ask health and disability related questions of applicants until the applicant has been able to successfully pass an interview, or some other assessment, to show that they meet some of the non-health requirements of the job. Employers may however, ask certain 'specific purpose' questions before a job offer (conditional or unconditional) is made.

In the weeks that the film Made in Dagenham is in cinemas – about a group of women in 1968 fighting for wages equal to their male colleagues' – the new law has put an end to so-called 'gagging clauses' which prevent staff from talking to each other about their pay and bonuses.

London-based Employment Law Partner, Joy Drummond says, “Our extensive experience of representing workers, trades unions and employers has shown us that where there is pay transparency employee satisfaction and productivity is higher and unwanted labour turnover along with the cost and disruption to business, decreases.”

Discrimination can be costly - not only to workplace morale but to productivity and turnover and tribunal litigation, though often avoidable, can damage reputation. Our expert Employment Law team can advise and guide on every aspect of the new laws and what they mean for workers, trades unions and employers.

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