Facts of case
Last month saw a much publicised case in Northern Ireland involving a bakery and a customer requesting a message supporting gay marriage to be displayed on a cake. The owners of the bakery refused to make the cake on the basis that the message went against their strong religious beliefs. Belfast County Court held that this amounted to discrimination against the customer.
In Scotland, the Equality Act 2010 ensures that people are treated equally regardless of whether they hold any of the “protected characteristics”. Similarly to discrimination in the workplace, when providing a service there are eight protected characteristics which a customer may possess, namely the following: disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation and age. Interestingly marriage and civil partnership is a protected characteristic when a worker is in employment, but not when a service is being provided to a member of the public.
When you are offering a service to the public you must ensure that you are not discriminating against any of these protected groups. It does not matter if this service is being paid for or not. The term ‘service’ has been given a wide interpretation by the courts. It includes services offered physically by way of a shop, services offered online or services offered by telephone etc.
There are a number of different types of discrimination, some of which you may not even realise are occurring. The most obvious type is direct discrimination. This occurs when someone is treated less favourably than someone else because of a protected characteristic. An example of this is the above ‘cake row’. The customer was found to have been treated less favourably than another customer because of his sexual orientation in addition to his political beliefs. Where direct discrimination is found to have occurred there is no justification defence available to the service provider. If you are offering any such services you must ensure that you treat everyone equally.
Indirect discrimination can occur without a service provider deliberately intending to break the law. This can happen when a general rule is applied by the provider which particularly disadvantages a person with a protected characteristic. Such examples can include taking orders for cakes by telephone only. This could indirectly discriminate against someone who is deaf and cannot use a telephone. Deafness would be included as a disability and is therefore protected under legislation. However unlike direct discrimination, a service provider can justify indirect discrimination if the reasoning behind their policy is deemed to be fair. This applies if it is a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim. If you can demonstrate why you follow the particular policy, and it is deemed to be a fair reason for your company, then the policy will not amount to a finding of discrimination.
Discrimination in the workplace and for service providers is certainly not a piece of cake and can provide a rocky road for many companies. There are plenty of other situations when discrimination can occur and, unless you are a gluten for punishment, the yeast you can do is consider how you provide your services and ensure any half-baked practices are not discriminatory. Rather than turning your company upside down, if you are ever in any doubt about what amounts to discrimination and knead a second opinion, seek advice! It would be wrong to assume that the Equality Act is much a dough about muffin (and sorry for the cheese(cake))
Solicitor – Employment Law