Harassment is not technically ‘discrimination’ as defined in the Equality Act. However, the Equality Act makes harassment unlawful as well as discrimination.
Harassment is widely defined. It is where a person (A) engages in unwanted conduct related to a disability and the conduct has the purpose or effect of
(a) violating another person’s (B’s) dignity, or
(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.
Where that was the effect but not the purpose of the unwanted action, there may be a defence if the claimant is being oversensitive. However, broadly the defence should not apply if it was reasonable for the claimant to regard the conduct as having that effect: Harassment of employee>Subjective perceptions – being too sensitive?
More generally, the definition of ‘harassment’ is discussed in some detail in the context of employment at Harassment of employees. The definition discussed there also applies to other areas covered by the Equality Act, such as provision of services and education.
B v John Edward Crowther Ltd (2002), Employment Tribunal
A dyehouse worker suffered ongoing abuse from colleagues related to his stammer. They often laughed and pulled faces at him (he sometimes contorted his face trying to get words out). They made grunting sounds when he was in the vicinity. An operative said for example: “why don’t you do us all a favour and f**k off you stuttering twat.” The tribunal held the employer was liable for discrimination.
At that time there was no separate legal claim for harassment. Nowadays the employer would be liable for harassment.
News report: Coffee shop mocks stammer on customer’s cup (January 2017)
Starbucks asks a customer’s name when he or she orders a drink, and writes it on the cup. In this particular case, when the customer stammered on his name the barista allegedly wrote RRR…ichard on the cup. The customer found this extremely offensive and humiliating. He complained on the Starbucks Facebook page. The barista was suspended pending disciplinary action, and Starbucks apologised to the customer.
This is likely to be harassment. More examples, including links to news reports: Examples on stammering: Services and public functions.
Case study: helpline laughing at stammer
A person who stammers rang a public helpline. The lady at the other end laughed at her as she was trying to speak. When the caller said that wasn’t acceptable, the lady replied: “You see, you can talk perfectly well when you want to!” The caller wrote to the helpline who responded excellently. They listened to their tape of the conversation and the lady was taken off the helpline for re-training. They also contacted the British Stammering Association for information to help them build stammering into their general training courses for helpline staff.
This did not go to court, but is likely to be harassment under the Equality Act 2010.
- Harassment of employees
- Examples on stammering: services and public functions>Rudeness and mockery
- Legislation: s.26 EqA (link to legislation.gov.uk)
- Codes of Practice: Employment Code, Chapter 7; Services Code, Chapter 8.
Beyond the Equality Act
The Equality Act 2010 makes harassment (as defined in s.26) unlawful only in the areas covered by the Act, for example employment or provision of services. Two other types of claim/offence can overlap with it but also extend to situations not covered by the Equality Act:
Protection from Harassment Act 1997
If the harassment is sufficiently serious, the PHA 1997 can apply to employment but also beyond, eg harassment at work by customers or suppliers, or harassment completely outside the workplace, such as by a shop or other business, or potentially by anyone else such as a neighbour. See Harassment of employees>Protection from Harassment Act 1997.