When we talk about businesses being guilty of “discrimination” we usually mean discrimination against employees. However, if your business provides goods, services or facilities to the general public then it also needs to be aware of the risks of discriminating against customers.
This issue was highlighted in the recent case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd  where a claim was brought by a homosexual customer against a family run bakery on the basis that it refused to bake a cake with the caption “Support Gay Marriage”. The Court held that this refusal amounted to direct discrimination on the grounds of the customer’s sexual orientation. The bakery argued that they would have also refused a similar order from a heterosexual customer with the same caption. However, the judge considered that the correct comparison was with a heterosexual customer with the caption “Support Heterosexual Marriage”.
When providing goods, services or facilities, businesses are prohibited from the following:
- Direct discrimination (e.g. nightclubs charging a higher price to men than women where the service is the same)
- Indirect discrimination (e.g. a seemingly neutral no headwear policy in a shop could discriminate against, for example, Sikhs and Jews unless the policy can be objectively justified)
- Harassment – (e.g. public swimming pool staff “wolf-whistling” at women using the facilities)
- Victimisation – (e.g. it would be unlawful for a shop to refuse entry to someone who has complained about discriminatory service)
- Discrimination arising from a disability/ failing to make reasonable adjustments – A disabled person should not be treated unfavourably as a result of something from their disability without justification.
Businesses are also required to make reasonable adjustments for all disabled people. Making reasonable adjustments can include: changing how things are done, changing a physical feature or providing an auxiliary aid to avoid any disadvantage.
Claims can be brought in the county court against a business within 6 months from the date of the discrimination. Most claims in this context are limited to claims for injury to feelings which tend to range from approximately £600 to £33,000. In fact in the bakery case, the customer only received around £500 in damages. As you can imagine however, the detrimental impact on the image of the business and the negative PR may be severe and fighting any litigation to clear the business’s name and protect the brand could prove to be costly.
If you think your business may be at risk of a discrimination claim, then please contact us for advice on how to reduce or mitigate the risk.
The Backhouse Solicitors Team