Can a shop refuse to serve me services based on my gender?

28th February 2020

Strictly Come Dancing star Karen Clifton was left in tears recently after a barbershop refused to cut her hair, on the grounds that they only cut men’s hair. The story – which gained further momentum when the BBC’s The One Show covered it – received a mixed reaction, with some coming out in support of the dancer, and others claiming she was overreacting.

But where does the law stand when it comes to whether or not businesses can refuse a customer based on their gender? Nicole Rogers of DAS Law outlines what you need to know.

What are the laws around gender discrimination?

The Equality Act 2010 sets out the legal obligations for providers of services, facilities and goods, and it prohibits various forms of discrimination including that which is on the grounds of sex / gender. Sex discrimination occurs when a service user (usually a customer) is treated less favourably or put at a disadvantage because of their sex.

Do the rules apply across to board regardless of the type of business?

The Equality Act 2010 is far-reaching in its parameters.  A service provider is defined as a person who is concerned with the provision of a service to the public. A service provider must comply with the law even if they provide services for free, meaning that even voluntary organisations are covered under the legislation.

A service provider can be an individual, a business or public body. Whilst the law does provide for limited exceptions, the courts have interpreted the law quite widely so it may be difficult to avoid having to comply with the legislation.

Are there any exceptions, such as single sex spas and golf clubs?

The Equality Act carves out several exceptions to the general position that discrimination in the provision of services is unlawful. For example, service providers are allowed to provide separate services for persons of each sex if it would be less effective to provide a joint service to both sexes and this restriction is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

An example of this would be if a charitable organisation provided housing to individuals suffering from domestic abuse; the charity would provide the same services to men and women but may feel that it would be more effective and appropriate to set up separate residencies.

The Equality Act 2010 also sets out exceptions for service providers to provide a single-sex service. Again, the service provider will be required to show that its decision is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The provider will also need to demonstrate that it meets one of the numerous conditions as set out in the act.

For example, a provider could only offer post-natal exercise classes to women since only women will need that service. Another example would be where a service involves personal health or hygiene and therefore one sex might reasonably object to the presence of the opposite sex.

Golf clubs are usually regarded as ‘associations’ and there are different obligations placed upon the same. There are some circumstances in which it might be permissible for a golf club to restrict its membership to a single sex.

Can a business refuse to serve me based because of my gender?

Unless a limited exception applies, a business cannot lawfully refuse to serve you because of your gender.

Can I take action legal against the business if I feel I have been discriminated against because of my sex?

Yes, you may issue proceedings in a county court within six months of the date of the discriminatory act. If your case is successful, the court may award damages for injury to feelings.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created. Note that the information was accurate at the time of publication but laws may have since changed.

How to avoid workplace discrimination in your business

Businesses must do all they can to prevent discrimination in the workplace and being up-to-date with equality law is essential.

April 2018 Learn more

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