Equality Act (2010)

Everything you need to know about the Act.

The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. It brought together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single Act. Combined, they made up a new Act that provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all.

The Act simplifies, strengthens and harmonises the legislation to provide Britain with a discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. The Act defines the various kinds of discrimination by reference to characteristics which are protected under the Act.

What types of characteristics are protected by the Act?

The Act protects the following characteristics (referred to in the Act as “protected characteristics”):


Age is defined in the Act by reference to a person’s age group. In relation to age, when the Act refers to people who share a protected characteristic, it means that they are in the same age group.

An age group can mean people of the same age or people of a range of ages. Age groups can be wide (for example, ‘people under 50’; ‘under 18s’). They can also be quite narrow (for example, ‘people in their mid-40s’; ‘people born in 1952’). Age groups may also be relative (for example, ‘older than me’ or ‘older than us’). 

There is some flexibility in the definition of a person’s age group.  For example, a 40 year old could be described as belonging to various age groups, including ‘40 year olds’; ‘under 50s’; ‘35 to 45 year olds’; ‘over 25s’; or ‘middle-aged’. Similarly, a 16 year old could be seen as belonging to groups that include: ‘children’; ‘teenagers’; ‘under 50s’; ‘under 25s’; ‘over 14s’ or ‘16 year olds’.


A person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Long-term means that the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months or for the rest of the affected person’s life.

Substantial means more than minor or trivial. 

Where a person is taking measures to treat or correct an impairment (other than by using spectacles or contact lenses) and, but for those measures, the impairment would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day to day activities, it is still to be treated as though it does have such an effect.

This means that ‘hidden’ impairments (for example, mental illness or mental health conditions, diabetes and epilepsy) may count as disabilities where they meet the definition in the Act.

Cancer, HIV infection, and multiple sclerosis are deemed disabilities under the Act from the point of diagnosis. In some circumstances, people who have a sight impairment are automatically treated under the Act as being disabled.

Progressive conditions and those with fluctuating or recurring effects will amount to disabilities in certain circumstances.

Gender reassignment

People who are proposing to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone a process (or part of a process) to reassign their sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

A reference to a transsexual person is a reference to a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

Under the Act ‘gender reassignment’ is a personal process, that is, moving away from one’s birth sex to the preferred gender, rather than a medical process.

Marriage and civil partnership

Only people who are married or in a civil partnership are protected against discrimination on this ground. The status of being unmarried or single is not protected. People who only intend to marry or form a civil partnership, or who have divorced or had their civil partnership dissolved, are not protected on this ground.

People who are married or in a civil partnership share the same protected characteristic. For example, a married man and a woman in a civil partnership share the protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership.

Pregnancy and maternity

Specific provisions in the Act protect women from discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave.

It is unlawful discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because of her pregnancy or a related illness, or because she is exercising, has exercised or is seeking or has sought to exercise her right to maternity leave.

In considering whether there has been pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the employer’s motive or intention is not relevant, and neither are the consequences of pregnancy or maternity leave. Such discrimination cannot be justified.

There is no obligation on a job applicant or employee to inform the employer of her pregnancy until 15 weeks before the baby is due. However, telling the employer triggers the legal protection, including the employer’s health and safety obligations.

Unfavourable treatment will only be unlawful if the employer is aware the woman is pregnant. The employer must know, believe or suspect that she is pregnant – whether this is by formal notification or through the grapevine.


The Act defines ‘race’ as including colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins.

A person has the protected characteristic of race if they fall within a particular racial group. A racial group can also be made up of two or more distinct racial groups. A racial group is a group of people who have or share a colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins. For example, a racial group could be ‘British’ people. All racial groups are protected from unlawful discrimination under the Act. Racial groups can also be defined by exclusion, for example, those of ‘non-British’ nationality could form a single racial group.

Nationality (or citizenship) is the specific legal relationship between a person and a state through birth or naturalisation. It is distinct from national origins.

Everyone has an ethnic origin but the provisions of the Act only apply where a person belongs to an 'ethnic group' as defined by the courts. This means that the person must belong to an ethnic group which regards itself and is regarded by others as a distinct and separate community because of certain characteristics. These characteristics usually distinguish the group from the surrounding community.

There are two essential characteristics which an ethnic group must have: a long shared history and a cultural tradition of its own. In addition, an ethnic group may have one or more of the following characteristics: a common language; a common literature; a common religion; a common geographical origin; or being a minority; or an oppressed group.

An ethnic group or national group could include members new to the group, for example, a person who marries into the group. It is also possible for a person to leave an ethnic group.

The courts have confirmed that the following are protected ethnic groups: Sikhs, Jews, Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsies, and Scottish Travellers.

Religion or belief

The protected characteristic of religion or belief includes any religion and any religious or philosophical belief. It also includes a lack of any such religion or belief.

For example, Christians are protected against discrimination because of their Christianity and non-Christians are protected against discrimination because they are not Christians, irrespective of any other religion or belief they may have or any lack of one.

The meaning of religion and belief in the Act is broad and is consistent with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion).

Meaning of Religion

‘Religion’ means any religion and includes a lack of religion. The term 'religion' includes the more commonly recognised religions in the UK such as the Baha’i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Rastafarianism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. It is for the courts to determine what constitutes a religion.

A religion need not be mainstream or well known to gain protection as a religion. However, it must have a clear structure and belief system. Denominations or sects within religions, such as Methodists within Christianity or Sunnis within Islam, may be considered a religion for the purposes of the Act.

Meaning of Belief

Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and includes a lack of belief. ‘Religious belief’ goes beyond beliefs about and adherence to a religion or its central articles of faith and may vary from person to person within the same religion. A belief which is not a religious belief may be a philosophical belief. Examples of philosophical beliefs include Humanism and Atheism. A belief need not include faith or worship of a God or Gods, but must affect how a person lives their life or perceives the world.

For a philosophical belief to be protected under the Act:

  • it must be genuinely held;
  • it must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others


Sex is a protected characteristic and refers to a male or female of any age. In relation to a group of people it refers to either men and/or boys, or women and/or girls.

A comparator for the purposes of showing sex discrimination will be a person of the opposite sex. Sex does not include gender reassignment or sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic. It means a person’s sexual orientation towards:

  • persons of the same sex (that is, the person is a gay man or a lesbian);
  • persons of the opposite sex (that is, the person is heterosexual); or
  • persons of either sex (that is, the person is bisexual).

Sexual orientation relates to how people feel as well as their actions.

Sexual orientation discrimination includes discrimination because someone is of a particular sexual orientation, and it also covers discrimination connected with manifestations of that sexual orientation. These may include someone’s appearance, the places they visit or the people they associate with.

Equality and Diversity