Direct discrimination is less favourable treatment because of a disability. There is no justification defence. It may apply particularly where discrimination is based on a stereotype – see separate page on Stereotypes and assumptions.
A useful way to think of ‘direct discrimination’ is that it sets the limits to the ‘objective justification’ defence. If there is no direct discrimination, the employer or service provider has a defence if it can show objective justification. If there is direct discrimination, the question of whether there is objective justification does not even arise.
Direct discrimination is where someone is treated less favourably because of a disability. There is no ‘justification’ defence – it is unlawful. It may apply particularly where a person is stereoyped because of their disability (Stereotypes and assumptions).
The other main discrimination claim for unfavourable treatment is ‘discrimination arising from disability‘. This is much wider than direct discrimination, and will very often apply where direct discrimination does not. It includes, for example, less favourable treatment due to a person’s abilities. However, in the case of ‘discrimination arising from disability’ the employer or service provider etc has a defence if it shows its actions were objectively justified. (More: ‘Direct discrimination’ vs ‘discrimination arising from disability’.)
Examples of direct discrimination
An employer does not employ a disabled person because it does not want any disabled people in the workplace. This is likely to be direct discrimination.
An employer turns down a job applicant who stammers because it is concerned other employees will make fun of the stammer. This is likely to be direct discrimination. (See below Motive irrelevant)
An applicant mentions in a job application for a sales role that he has a stammer. The employer assumes that a person who stammers would not have the communication skills required for this role, and so does not invite them for interview. The employer does not look at the individual’s actual abilities. This may well be unlawful as direct discrimination. (See further Stereotypes and assumptions)
Example of ‘discrimination arising from disability’
An applicant for a customer service job has a stammer which is a ‘disability’ within the Equality Act. The employer turns him down because, due to the stammer, he will sometimes take longer to serve customers. This is likely to be ‘discrimination arising from disability’, and the question will be whether the employer can show the objective justification defence applies. The reason for turning the person down is their ability to do something, rather than the stammer itself.
Some particular points on direct discrimination:
- it includes less favourable treatment of a person because of another person’s disability (Discrimation by association),
- it may well apply even though there is no ‘disability’ as defined, if the person is just perceived to have a disability (Perceived disability).
Take the direct discrimination example above, where the job applicant who stammers is not invited for interview. Even if that individual’s stammer did not meet the requirements of being a ‘disability’ within the Equality Act, the employer may be liable on the basis that he perceived the applicant to have a disability. (See further Perceived disability).
As to how far discrimination in favour of disabled people is lawful, see Can a disabled person be treated more favourably?
- Legislation: s.13 EqA (link to legislation.gov.uk).
- Codes of Practice: Employment Code, Chapter 3; Services Code, Chapter 4.
There is ‘direct discrimination’ if because of a disability an employer or service provider etc treats an individual less favourably than it treats or would treat others (s.13 EqA).
The ‘other’ person who would not be treated in that way is known as the ‘comparator’. There is no need for an actual person who was treated less favourably – the comparator can be hypothetical. There must be “no material difference between the circumstances relating to each case” (s.23 EqA) – so there must be no material difference between the circumstances of the claimant and those of the comparator except that the comparator does not have a disability. The ‘circumstances’ include a person’s abilities. See further below The comparision.
So the legislation sets two requirements:
- that the treatment was ‘because of disability’ (see below ‘Because of’ disability), and
- the treatment was less favourable than how a similar non-disabled comparator would be treated (below The comparision).
However, these requirements are intertwined, and should not be separated too much. One should cross-check that both requirements are met, but if one requirement is met the other is likely to be. See below Two limbs are intertwined.
For there to be direct discrimination, the claimant must be treated less favourably than a non-disabled person would be whose circumstances (which include ‘abilities’) are not materially different (s.23 EqA).
The effect of this seems to be that treating someone less favourably because of their abilities (or lack of abilities) is not direct discrimination.
However, unfavourable treatment because of abilities arising in consequence of the disability can be ‘discrimination arising from disability’. So it can still be unlawful, but the employer etc has a defence if it shows objective justification. See ‘Direct discrimination’ vs ‘discrimination arising from disability’.
An employer turns down a job applicant with a stammer because it considers that – in the light of the stammer – the applicant’s communication skills are not good enough. If this is not direct discrimination, it can still be unlawful as ‘discrimination arising from disability’ but the employer has a defence if it shows objective justification.
Abilities: Technical uncertainties
There are technical uncertainties on abilities and the scope of direct discrimination. For example, it may perhaps be direct discrimination to treat someone less favourably because of behaviour which is a ‘facet’ of the disability. Also it may sometimes be difficult to distinguish between ‘because of the stammer’ and ‘because of communication skills’.
If you want a rather long and technical discussion, go to Direct discrimination: What is ‘because of’ stammering? The short answer though is that these issues are unclear, and on the point that they may often not matter in practice see: ‘Direct discrimination’ vs ‘discrimination arising from disability’: Is the distinction important in practice?
Another uncertainty is how far one can argue that abilities irrelevant to the job should not be taken into account. See below ‘Relevant’ circumstances.
Stereotypes and assumptions
Direct discrimination may apply particularly where a person is stereoyped because of their disability. See Stereotypes and assumptions.
What is ‘less favourable’?
What about more borderline cases? The Employment Code, at para 3.5, says there need not be actual disadvantage; it is enough that the worker can reasonably say that they would have preferred not to be treated differently from the way someone without the disability is or would be treated. (This wording comes from West Yorkshire Police v Khan (link to bailli.org), para 76).
An example of this given by the Employment Code is appraisal duties being withdrawn from the claimant, even though the claimant continues on the same pay.
The Code also says, at para 3.6, that less favourable treatment (e.g. loss of job status) cannot be balanced by offsetting it against more favourable treatment (e.g. extra pay).
Two limbs are intertwined
- ‘because of’ disability, and
- less favourable than how a non-disabled comparator would be treated whose circumstances are not materially different.
These two limbs are dealt with under separate headings below, but they should not be seen as totally separate. The Court of Appeal in Aylott v Stockton on Tees Borough Council (July 2010), and more recently the EAT in Cordell v FCO, said that whether the claimant is treated less favourably than a hypothetical employee is intertwined with identifying the reason for the treatment. It might be seen as a single test rather than two separate ‘limbs’. Even so, one should cross-check that both limbs are satisfied.
“…I think that the decision whether the claimant was treated less favourably than a hypothetical employee of the [employer] is intertwined with identifying the ground on which the claimant was dismissed. If it was on the ground of disability, then it is likely that he was treated less favourably than the hypothetical comparator not having the particular disability would have been treated in the same relevant circumstances. The finding of the reason for his dismissal supplies the answer to the question whether he received less favourable treatment: the real question is not so much about the hypothetical comparator, as whether the ET’s finding on the ground of dismissal was supported by evidence….”
Court of Appeal in Aylott v Stockton on Tees Borough Council (July 2010).
An earlier example of this point is Shammon v Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constulary  – see below ‘Relevant’ circumstances.
The two limbs of the test are discussed below:
‘Because of’ disability
Paragraph 3.14 of the Employment Code (based on case law) says that motive is irrelevant, and also that discrimination may be unconscious:
“Direct discrimination is unlawful, no matter what the employer’s motive or intention, and regardless of whether the less favourable treatment of the worker is conscious or unconscious. Employers may have prejudices that they do not even admit to themselves or may act out of good intentions – or simply be unaware that they are treating the worker differently because of a protected characteristic.”
Paragraph 3.14 of the Employment Code.
Case law has said that if the protected characteristic (eg. disability) is the factual criterion that determined the decision of the employer or service provider, then his ‘motive’ or ‘reason’ for using that criterion does not matter.
An employer turns down a job applicant who stammers because it is concerned other employees will make fun of the stammer. This is likely to be direct discrimination.
This phraseology – of looking at the ‘factual criteria’ applied by the discriminator – is taken from Lord Phillips’s judgment in the JFS admissions case (link to bailii.org) (also Press Summary (pdf)), which in December 2009 reaffirmed that motive is irrelevant. Other judges expressed the test in other ways, but the majority of the Supreme Court essentially took the same approach.
Some examples of cases looking at the cause of treatment rather than the motive:
In James v Eastleigh Borough Council (1990) a swimming pool charged lower admission to pensioners, because a person’s resources were likely to have been reduced by retirement. Even so, it was held to be direct sex discrimination against men. Since the retirement age was 65 for men and 60 for women, the effect of the pool’s policy was inherently discriminatory – a 61 year old man would be charged more than a 61 year old woman.
In Amnesty International v Ahmed (2009) the employer was, amongst other things, concerned that a person of the claimant’s ethnic origin would not be perceived as impartial. The court held that ‘benign’ reasons such as this did not alter the fact that there was direct discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin.
…but usually need to look at mental processes
JFS admissions and James v Eastleigh Borough Council above are examples of cases where the criteria used were clear. In many cases, however, the factual criteria which determined how claimant was treated will be unclear. Here it will be necessary to look at the employer’s mental processes to see if the treatment was because of the disability or because of something else.
A job applicant who stammers is turned down for the job. The employer says this is because of lack of experience, rather than anything to do with the stammer. It will be for the tribunal to decide whether that is true.
In practice, a case such as this is more likely to be ‘discrimination arising from disability’ rather than ‘direct discrimination’. In both cases though, there is the question of what is the employer’s real reason. See my Recruitment and promotion page: What was the reason for turning the person down?
Even though the employer’s mental processes are important, it is still not the motive that is relevant:
In Amnesty International v Ahmed (2009) above, the employer’s mental process was relevant in that (subjectively) one of its reasons was concern about the candidate’s impartiality. That was the motive, but it meant that legally the employer’s decision was on grounds of ethnic origin, and it was so unlawful.
NB: Where the reason for the less favourable treatment is the abilities of the disabled person, that is not likely to be direct discimination. See above Abilities.
Mental process of decision-maker, rather than other staff
In deciding whether a dismissal (or other act) by a sole decision-maker is direct discrimination, the court looks only at the motivation of that decision-maker. However inputs into the decision, such as reports, could be separate acts of discrimination. Also it is different where a decision was made jointly.
CLFIS (UK) Ltd v Reynolds, Court of Appeal, 2015
A dismissal was held not to be age discrimation because the sole decision-maker was not motivated by age, but by the claimant’s performance.
The decision to dismiss was made following a presentation by another staff member. The court held the tribunal was right not to look at whether the other staff member was motivated by age in deciding whether the dismissal was discriminatory, because he was not a decision-maker in it. However a claimant still had remedy because she could for other discriminatory acts by staff, such as discriminatory reports. These would be separate discriminatory acts distinct from the dismissal.
If the decision to dismiss had been made jointly, the tribunal would have to be concerned with the motivation of all those responsible, since a discriminatory motivation on the part of any of them would be sufficient to taint the decision.
It follows from this that knowledge of a disability by someone else in the employer’s organisation cannot be imputed to the decision-maker. For direct discrimination one looks only at the decision-maker’s mental processes:
Gallop v Newport City Council (bailii.org), EAT, 2016
On a claim for direct discrimination, the claimant argued that knowledge by another employee (in Occupational Health) should be imputed to the manager who decided to dismiss the claimant. The court rejected this. The tribunal was entitled to conclude that because the manager had no actual knowledge of the claimant’s disability, and there was no evidence that his decision to dismiss was because of an intention or motivation stemming from the claimant’s disability, direct disability discrimination was not a consideration.
The position is different for reasonable adjustments and discrimination arising from disability, where knowledge of the disability by other staff (but not normally Occupational Health) can be imputed. See Knowledge of disability.
Disability need not be the only or main cause
“The characteristic [ie. the disability] needs to be a cause of the less favourable treatment, but does not need to be the only or even the main cause.”
Paragraph 3.11 of the Employment Code.
‘If the tribunal is satisfied that the prohibited ground is one of the reasons for the treatment, that is sufficient to establish discrimination. It need not be the only or even the main reason. It is sufficient that it is significant in the sense of being more than trivial: see the observations of Lord Nicholls in Nagarajan (p.886F) as explained by Peter Gibson LJ in Igen v Wong  ICR 931, para 37.’
London Borough of Islington v Ladele, (link to bailii.org), EAT, para 40(2) of judgment.
An example of a protected charateristic being only one cause:
O’Donoghue v Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council (link to bailii.org).
The Court of Appeal upheld a tribunal’s finding of (sex) discrimination. An interview panel’s rejection of a woman had been affected by evidence that she was not an easy person to work with or good with staff (not discriminatory reasons), but also by strong feminist views which she had freely expressed (discriminatory reason).
In response to an enquiry in the application form prohibited under s.60 EqA, a job applicant discloses that he has a stammer. On the basis of the paper job application, the employer does not shortlist him for interview. In seeking to discharge the employer’s burden of proof that there is no direct discrimination (s.60 shifts the burden to the employer), the employer will need to bring evidence sufficient to show that the stammer was not a significant influence on its decision not to shortlist. It is not enough to show the stammer was not the only or even the main reason.
For fuller example see Pre-employment enquiries>Enforcement. That link also deals with issues of ‘discrimination arising from disability’.
See further my page Multiple discrimination.
It is likely that discrimination because one is perceived to have a disability is covered as direct discrimination. One does not need to actually have a disability, or it may not be a disability as legally defined.
A person who stammers is turned down for a job due to stereotyping. This may well be direct discrimination, and the job applicant may have a claim even if that her stammer did not meet the requirements of being a ‘disability’ within the Equality Act. The employer may be liable on the basis that he perceived the applicant to have a disability.
For more, see Perceived disability.
Discrimination by association
The person claiming to have been treated less favourably need not have the disability him- or herself. The less favourable treatment may be because of someone else’s disability.
Direct discrimination can include a mother being treated less favourably because her son is disabled.
Direct discrimination could also include a non-disabled person treated less favourably because she helped to set up an informal staff network for disabled workers.
For more, see Discrimination by association.
‘Because of’ disability is intended to mean same as previous DDA wording
The ‘because of’ wording in the Equality Act 2010 is not intended to mean anything different from ‘on the grounds of’ disability in the previous Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). The new wording is intended to be easier to understand, but to mean the same. Ultimately the courts will decide this, but statements in Parliament and the European law consideration below should be important to their decision.
In Parliament (and elsewhere) there was concern that the change in wording will create uncertainty, and that ‘because of’ may be interpreted more narrowly than the DDA. However, the Solicitor General speaking for the Government in a debate on the Equality Bill said that the new wording means just the same as the old. In particular, intent is not required, and discrimination need not be the only ground for less favourable treatment (col 240-244, HC Hansard, Public Bill Cttee 16/6/09 (link to UK Parliament website)).
The point was also addressed in the House of Lords Committee. The Minister confirmed that the objective test, irrespective of motive or intent, is part of European equality law, so that a narrower interpretation requiring intent would violate that and be invalid (from col 522 HL Hansard 13/1/10 (link to UK Parliament website)).
The treatment of the disabled person must be compared with how someone would be treated who does not have a disability (eg a stammer) but whose abilities and other circumstances are not materially different.
However, whether this comparison test is met is intertwined with whether the treatment was ‘because of’ disability. The two limbs should not be separated too much. See above Two limbs are intertwined.
Comparator – actual of hypothetical
The claimant must be treated less favouably than how someone else (a similar non-disabled person) would be treated, and that ‘someone else’ is known as the ‘comparator’. There must be no material difference between the circumstances relating to each case, and the ‘circumstances’ include a person’s abilities (s.23 EqA). So there must be no material difference between the circumstances of the claimant and those of the comparator except that the comparator does not have a disability.
Because the legislation talks of how the employer etc ‘would treat’ others, there does not have to be an actual person whose circumstances are not materially different. It is enough that because of the disability the claimant is treated less favourably than a person with no material difference in cirumstances (including abilities) would have been treated had they existed. Such as person is called a ‘hypothetical’ comparator.
The comparator will normally be hypothetical rather than actual, because there will very often be no actual person treated more favourably whose circumstances are not materially different. However, how people are treated where there is a material difference can still be relevant. It can be evidence to help a tribunal infer how a non-disabled comparator with no material difference would have been treated.
Cases which consider who should be taken as the correct comparator include Aylott v Stockton on Tees Borough Council (Court of Appeal, July 2010), Cordell v FCO, (EAT, October 2011), and High Quality Lifestyles v Watts (EAT, April 2006).
Employment Code of Practice
“The comparator for direct disability discrimination is the same as for other types of direct discrimination. However, for disability, the relevant circumstances of the comparator and the disabled person, including their abilities, must not be materially different. An appropriate comparator will be a person who does not have the disabled person’s impairment but who has the same abilities or skills as the disabled person (regardless of whether those abilities or skills arise from the disability itself).”
Employment Code, para 3.29
Paragraph 3.30 of the Employment Code goes on to say that it is important to focus on those circumstances which are, in fact, relevant to the less favourable treatment. Although in some cases, certain abilities may be the result of the disability itself, these may not be relevant circumstances for comparison purposes.
A disabled man with arthritis who can type at 30 words per minute applies for an administrative job which includes typing, but is rejected on the grounds that his typing is too slow. The correct comparator in a claim for direct discrimination would be a person without arthritis who has the same typing speed with the same accuracy rate. In this case, the disabled man is unable to lift heavy weights, but this is not a requirement of the job he applied for. As it is not relevant to the circumstances, there is no need for him to identify a comparator who cannot lift heavy weights
Employment Code, para 3.30:
Legislation prior to the Equality Act 2010 actually said that it is ‘relevant’ circumstances of the comparator that must not be materially different (s.3A(5) Disability Discrimination Act 1995). The Equality Act does not include the word ‘relevant’, but the Employment Code still takes the view that circumstances must be relevant to the less favourable treatment. It seems this can be justified on the wording of the Equality Act, in that a difference in irrelevant circumstances would not be a ‘material’ difference.
From the example in para 3.30 of the Code (above), one wonders whether discrimination because of abilities irrelevant to the job can be direct discrimination, even though the abilities are taken into account by the employer (and so are relevant to the less favourable treatment):
A job applicant who stammers has difficutly communicating in interviews, but is fine in the sales type of role that they are used to. The employer turns the person down for the sales role because of how they communicated in the interview.
Arguably this might be direct discrimination – ability to communicate in interviews is not relevant to the job. However, this ability is relevant to the less favourable treatment. The legal position here is uncertain, and there may well be a stronger argument that the employer’s decision is not ‘objectively justifed, so there is unlawful ‘discrimination arising from disability‘.
Shamoon v Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constulary (link to bailii.org)  House of Lords
This was a sex discrimination case (before Equality Act 2010). Chief Inspector Shamoon claimed she was treated less favourably than two male chief inspectors. Unlike her, they retained their counselling responsibilities. She had been the subject of complaints and of representations by Police Federation representatives, the male chief inspectors had not. The House of Lords said that whether this was a material difference was linked with the reason why her counselling duties were withdrawn. It might be that the reason had nothing to do with the complaints and representations. If that were so, then a comparison between her and the two male chief inspectors may well be comparing like with like, because in that event the difference (complaints v. no complaints) between her and her two male colleagues would be an immaterial difference. However, if the complaints were the reason for the withdrawal of her counselling duties, they would be a material difference.
For further technical uncertaintes, including a link to a technical discussion of stammering in particular, see above Abilities: Technical uncertainties.