This page deals with the rules in sections 53 and 54 Equality Act 2010 prohibiting disability discrimination by trade and professional qualifications bodies, such as the General Medical Council or Public Carriage Office.
Trade and professional exams are subject to the Equality Act under ss.53 and 54. The key points are:
- Unlike most education disputes, a claim against a professional qualifications body goes to the employment tribunal (unless a statutory appeal is available as with the GMC), rather than to the County Court or – in Scotland – the sheriffs court. This means the time limit for bringing a claim is generally 3 months, not 6 months. The time limit runs from when the discrimination happened. Internal complaints or appeals do not pause the time limit.
- The qualifications body is obliged to make reasonable adjustments to the process by which it assesses the relevant standards. Unlike university exams, the duty is individual-based (like the duty on employers) rather than anticipatory.
- Indirect discrimination (s.19 EqA) applies to what competence standards are being assessed. Accordingly where the standards being assessed (eg particular oral skills) put people with a disability at a particular disadvantage, then in any tribunal case it is for the qualifications body to show that assessing those standards is justified as being proportionate, and does not disadvantage someone with a disability more than need be. This is called “objective justification”.
- Difficult questions can arise on whether a time limit is subject to the reasonable adjustment duty. However, even if it is not, a time limit is within the Equality Act because the qualifications body must show it is objectively justified as a competence standard (see below Time limits).
The rules discussed on this page are the special rules in sections 53 and 54 Equality Act 2010 on disability discrimination by trade and professional qualifications bodies. Professional bodies include for example the General Medical Council or Public Carriage Office. Universities are not subject to ss.53 and 54.
The reasonable adjustment duty does not apply to what competence standards are being assessed, as there should be a single set of standards for everyone. However these standards are still subject to the Equality Act by way of a claim for indirect discrimination. If they disadvantage disabled people, the qualifications body can be required to show they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, if people who stammer could do the actual job (or some specialisms within the job) but are being blocked by the exam, that could be a good argument that the relevant competence standard is not justified, and so unlawful indirect discrimination.
Sections 53 and 54 rules cover bodies which confer professional qualifications or authorisations, for example to become a doctor, lawyer, actuary, taxi driver or plumber.
The rules go beyond exams. For example, a police authority deciding whether an officer has passed their probationary period may be covered.
Some bodies are excluded, such as universities and other bodies within s.91 EqA. However, any body not covered by ss.53 and 54 will almost certainly be covered by different provisions of the Equality Act which give the disabled person greater rights than those discussed on this page (See Services: Which rules apply? Exams).
More detail below: What are ‘qualifications bodies’?
The rules for qualification bodies
The most important types of discrimination that can apply are 1. the duty to make reasonable adjustments and 2. indirect discrimination:
- the duty to make reasonable adjustments applies to the way in which competence standards are assessed: eg whether written or oral, how long is given, allowing a blind person special software to allow them to access the computer;
- indirect discrimination applies to whether particular competence standards ought to be assessed. If applying a particular competence standard disadvantages disabled people and the matter is taken to a tribunal, the qualifications body must show that imposing the standard is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (the objective justification test).
Sometimes the competence standard is so bound up with how it is assessed that possible adjustments are limited. For example in an exam to become an interpreter, ability to speak Russion cannot be examined through a written test. This is also an important issue for Time limits in exams (below), where the qualifications body may argue that the competence standard is ability to do something orally within a particular time, and therefore not subject to the reasonable adjustment duty.
However, the key point to understand here is that even though the competence standard itself is not subject to the reasonable adjustment duty, it is still very much subject to the Equality Act, through a claim for indirect discrimination. The qualifications body must satisfy the tribunal that the standard is proportionate, bearing in mind its detriment on disabled people.
(Also a user-friendly (I hope) outline with examples of possible adjustments, in the context of the broadly similar rules applying to universities, is Oral assessments, and assessed presentations.)
Time limits in exams
Disputes often arise on how far a time limit can be imposed. For stammering, the issue arises with oral exams, such as medical OSCE exams (wikipedia.org) where candidates have to go round different ‘stations’ examining a patient at each.
Before considering time limits, it is worth looking at whether other adjustments might be sufficient. For example, the examiner could be informed about the stammer and how it affects the person, and be asked to take account of the stammer and not mark him down if his performance was affected by the stammer. This happened in a medical OCSE exam: UK case study (archive of equalitytalk.org.uk) (scroll down to ‘Case study: initially inappropriate adjustment in medical exam (UK)’). That was sufficient in that case study, at least to secure a pass, but sometimes it may not be.
Time limits: Reasonable adjustments
If a student asks for an extension of time in a professional exam, the qualifications body will often argue that the time limit is itself a competence standard, and so not subject to the reasonable adjustment duty.
The appeal courts have yet to clarify in what circumstances a time limit will itself be a competence standard. The Court of Appeal unfortunately skirted the issue in Burke v College of Law (2012). However, it is interesting that in giving leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal there, Lewison LJ said that though ability to work under a time constraint was a competence for a solicitor, it did not necessarily follow that sitting the exams under that particular time constraint was a competence standard.
This helps in arguing that the particular time limit imposed in the exam may not itself be a competence standard, even though there may indeed be time pressure in the ‘real life’ work situation.
Time limits: Is the competence standard justified?
Even where the reasonable adjustment duty does not apply (because the time limit is a competence standard), a competence standard which puts disabled people at a particular disadvantage, such as the OCSE, must be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (objective justification).
It is for the qualifications body to show that the standard is justified. It will be important whether the aim can be achieved by less discriminatory means, and whether the detriment to disabled people outweighs the importance of the aim to be achieved. There is a balancing excercise by the tribunal.
Time limits: Relevant arguments on both reasonable adjustments and competence standards
Relevant arguments are likely to be similar whether the question is (a) whether an adjustment to time limits is reasonable or (b) whether a competence standard on time constraints is justified. These are some relevant points, taking the OCSE as an example but similar points will apply to many professions or trades:
- How is the person’s communication in an actual work situation? – though see also below group test.The stammer may well be more severe in the exam due to increased anxiety. If the person has done work placements, is speech an issue there, and does it get in the way of doing the job? For a similar point on job interviews see Oral interview not appropriate way to assess oral skills, as exemplified in the the U.S. Ohio firefighter case, where a firefighter was rejected because he stammered in the interview, and this was held illegal because his stammer did not interfere in the different situation of dealing with a fire.
- Is it justified to insist that the professional must have that particular skill? In the case of a doctor, for example, are there some types of doctor for which those OSCE skills within particular time constraints are not required? In a U.S. case, Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners the exam candidate intended to enter pathology which would involve little or no contact with patients. And there may be many roles where doctors do have contact with patients but where ability to meet all the OSCE requirements is not required.
- Linked with that, are particular abilities better seen as a matter between employer and employee, bearing in mind the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments, and also bearing in mind the duty of a professional to recognise any limitations he may have? (Any professional has limitations.)
- What is the position if a doctor develops a stammer in later life, through having a stroke for example, such that they would be unable to pass the OSCE exams within those particular time limits. Are they then debarred from practicising? If not, why should the exam candidate with a stammer be barred from becoming a doctor? (Cf example on fitness standards in para 8.36 of the 2008 Code)
- It may be relevant what medical examining bodies in other countries see as necessary. Going back to the U.S case Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners, there the medical examining board had already agreed that the claimant could have double time for each patient encounter, and replace telephone patient encounters with in-person encounters. (The dispute was about whether he should also be allowed to use a text-to-speech device.) Contrast this with the limited adjustments allowed in this UK case study (archive of equalitytalk.org.uk) (scroll down to ‘Case study: initially inappropriate adjustment in medical exam (UK)’), though it seems additional speaking time would have been allowed if he failed a fifth time.
If the issue is justification of a competence standard, as opposed to reasonable adjustments, the focus may perhaps be on the group of people with the same disability (eg possibly people with such and such level of stammer, or speech impairment?), rather than just on the individual claimant. So for example on the first ‘relevant argument’ above – how is the person’s communication in the actual work situation – the focus may not on the individual claimant’s communication, but on the fact that people who stammer more generally may communicate with greater ease in the work situation than in the exam. It is not clear whether this would make much if any difference in practice.
For discrimination claims other than indirect discrimination, reasonableness or objective justification should be judged on an individual rather than group basis. See also Objective justification: group or individual test?
Code of Practice
There is no Code of Practice for these rules under Equality Act 2010.
However, there is a 2008 Code of Practice issued under the Disability Discrimination Act, namely the Revised Code of Practice: Trade Organisations, Qualifications Bodies and General Qualifications Bodies (dera.ioe.ac.uk). I call this ‘the 2008 Code’. It is possible that tribunals are still obliged to have regard to this (though it is not binding).
Some parts of the Code are out-of-date because the Equality Act has differences from the DDA. However, an area which has not changed is that the reasonable adjustment duty cannot be applied to a competence standard. Also, although the DDA had no concept of ‘indirect discrimination’, the objective justification test (proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim) which a competence standard must meet is the same now as it was then.
What is a ‘qualifications body’?
Broadly, a qualifications body is a body which can confer a professional or trade qualification or authorisation, such as the General Medical Council, or the Public Carriage Office, unless already covered by the Part 4 education provisions. It seems that entry onto a voluntary register can also be within the definition.
Burke v College of Law, Court of Appeal, 2012
The College of Law was held to be a qualifications body, as well as the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The definition of a qualifications body is in s.54 EqA. Subject to exceptions, the test is whether the body can confer (or renew or extend) an ‘authorisation, qualification, recognition, registration, enrolment, approval or certification. which is needed for, or facilitates engagement in, a particular trade or profession.’
There need not necessarily be an exam:
Hart v Chief Constable of Derbyshire (bailii.org) (2007)
The Employment Appeal Tribunal raised the possibility, without deciding the point, that a police authority might be seen as a qualifications body in deciding whether an officer had completed their probationary period. (See also refusal of leave to appeal to Court of Appeal.)
There are separate rules for GCSEs, A-levels and other designated exams (see GCSE, A-levels), and for bodies such as universities and further education colleges. Any body not covered by ss.53 and 54 will almost certainly be covered by different provisions of the Equality Act which give the disabled person greater rights than discussed on this page (See Services: Which rules apply? Exams).
What is a competence standard?
S.53(7) EqA says that the application by a qualifications body of a competence standard is not disability discrimination unless it is indirect discrimination. In other words, as explained by the 2008 Code, the duty to make reasonable adjustments and other types of claim under the EqA can apply to the process of assessing the standard, but do not apply to the question of whether that standard should be applied. The latter question is only subject to review only as possible indirect discrimination, where the qualifications body has a defence if it shows the standard is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The idea is that competence standards should be consistent standards that do not have to be adjusted for individual circumstances, but also must be non-discriminatory. (Note that professional exams are probably covered by the EU Framework Employment Directive, where there is no special provision for competence standards, so the UK is obliged to outlaw disability discrimination in this area.)
The first question therefore is what is a ‘competence standard’?
A competence standard is defined as ‘an academic, medical or other standard applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability’ (s.54(6) EqA). The 2008 Code (which is not binding) explains that, for example, having a certain standard of eyesight is a competence standard required for a pilot’s qualification – presumably a ‘medical’ standard. Having a certain level of knowledge of the UK taxation system is a competence standard for an accountancy qualification (para 8.27 of the Code).
The Code goes on to say: ‘A requirement that a person has a particular level of knowledge of a subject, for example, or has the strength or ability to carry out a particular task or activity within a set period of time, would probably be a competence standard’ (para 8.28).
The standard must relate to a level of ‘competence or ability’. Accordingly the Code (at para 8.29) says a condition that a person has, for example, a certain length of experience of doing something will not be a competence standard if it does not determine a particular level of competence or ability. So a requirement that a candidate must have at least ten years continuous experience is unlikely to amount to a competence standard (a person who has two periods of experience which total ten years may have equivalent ability and experience)
Situations where the assessment process is bound up with the competence standard
The 2008 Code of Practice says:
8.31 Sometimes, of course, the process of assessing whether a competence standard has been achieved is inextricably linked to the standard itself. The conferment of some qualifications is conditional upon having a practical skill or ability which must be demonstrated by completing a practical test. The ability to take the test may itself amount to a competence standard.
Para 8.31 of the 2008 Code goes on to give some examples, including:
An oral examination for a person training to be a Russian interpreter cannot be done in an alternative way, e.g. as a written examination, because the examination is to ascertain whether someone can speak Russian.
A driving test for a heavy goods vehicle licence cannot be done solely as a written test because the purpose of the test is to ascertain whether someone can actually drive a heavy goods vehicle.
The 2008 Code has some further examples at para 8.20 which deals with the reasonable adjustment duty. These include one example where an adjustment to an interpreter exam would (in contrast to the above example) be reasonable:
A woman with a mental health problem is informed that an oral examination for a diploma in interpreting and translation has been arranged for 8:30 am. The timing of the examination would substantially disadvantage the woman, because a side effect of her medication is extreme drowsiness for several hours after taking her morning dose – which prevents her from concentrating well. The qualifications body agrees to her request to take the examination later in the day.
A woman with a learning disability is allowed extra time by a qualifications body to take a written examination. This is likely to be a reasonable adjustment for the qualifications body to make, because the trade which the woman wants to enter would not require written work to be done in a short amount of time, so the ability to write quickly is not a competence standard.
A disabled man asks for twice as much time for a test in shorthand because his disability makes it impossible for him to write quickly. This is unlikely to be a reasonable adjustment for the qualifications body to make, because speed is an essential element of the shorthand qualification – in other words, it is likely to be a competence standard, and thus the duty to make reasonable adjustments does not apply.
As mentioned above, para 8.28 of the Code (which is not binding) gives ‘ability to carry out a particular task or activity within a set period of time’ as something which would probably be a competence standard, and para 8.20 gives a shorthand exam as an example of this (quoted above). However, how far a particular time limit will be a competence standard is a contentious issue, which the appeal courts have not yet decided:
Burke v College of Law (2012)
The Court of Appeal did not have to reach a decision on whether a time requirement for a professional legal exam was a competence standard. However, in giving leave to appeal, Lewison LJ seems to have accepted that there was real prospect of success for an argument that a competence standard of being able to work under time constraint did not necessarily mean that the particular time requirement adopted for the exam was a competence standard. Presumably, it might still be arguable that the particular time requirement was subject to the reasonable adjustment duty.
See further above Time limits in exams.
The only basis on which the application of a particular competence standard can be challenged is ‘indirect discrimination’ (EqA s.53(7). Broadly, there is indirect discrimination where
- the qualifications body applies a competence standard to people generally, but
- the standard puts people with a particular disability (including the claimant) at a particular disadvantage in comparison with people who do not have that disability, and
- the body cannot show that the standard is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim (the ‘objective justification’ test).
The reasonable adjustment duty does not apply here. The idea is that it is highly desirable for qualifications bodies to be able to apply one professional standard, applying equally to all applicants, rather than being obliged to adjust the standard on a case-by-case basis.
Accordingly, on the question whether a particular standard can be applied, the most important issue is likely to be whether the body can show that the standard meets the ‘objective justification’ test, namely that the standard is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Some key points on this are set out above: Time limits: Relevant arguments on both reasonable adjustments and competence standards. This section (below) discusses the test more generally
My ‘Objective justification’ page gives more detail on the test in general. It is for the qualifications body to show that the standard is justified. It will be particularly important whether the aim can be achieved by less discriminatory means. There is also the question whether the detriment to disabled people outweighs the importance of the aim to be achieved. There is a balancing excercise by the tribunal.
The 2008 Code discusses the objective justification test specifically in relation to competence standards at paras 8.36 – 8.41. Para 8.36 gives the example of a disabled person who fails a fitness test, where however the qualifications body had not reviewed the fitness standards to see if they were proportionate to the requirements of the job. If it had done so, it would have found that the fitness standard demanded was much higher than many people actually working in that job could now achieve (even though these people achieved that standard at the time of qualification). The qualifications body would therefore be unlikely to be able to justify this competence standard.
Para 8.39 of the Code talks about medical standards. It says stereotypical assumptions about health and safety implications should be avoided. A qualifications body would have to provide cogent evidence that the standard is genuinely fundamental to the needs of the profession or trade in order to ensure the competence of practitioners.
Para 8.41 looks at how a qualifications body can avoid discrimination in relation to competence standards. It advises that it is more likely to be possible to justify competence standards if their nature and effect has been considered in advance. Amongst the factors which a body’s review of its standards might involve are: identifying the purpose of each standard and examining how the standard achieves this; considering the impact which each competence standard may have on disabled people and, in the case of a standard which may have an adverse impact, asking whether the application of the standard is absolutely necessary; and examining whether the purpose for which any competence standard is applied could be achieved in a way which does not have an adverse impact on disabled people, and documenting this.
See above Group test.
When it comes to how the competence standard is assessed, eg whether orally or in writing, or how long should be given for an oral exam, the reasonable adjustment duty applies (paragraphs 8.30ff and 8.20 of the 2008 Code).
Burke v College of Law, Court of Appeal, 2012
Sufficient reasonable adjustments (including extra time) were held to have been given to a student with multiple sclerosis taking exams to become a solicitor.
Project Management Institute v Latif, EAT, 2007
A blind woman taking a professional exam succeeded in her reasonable adjustment claim, having screen reader software installed on a stand-alone computer at the test centre, even though she had not suggested the particular reasonable adjustment at the time.
As discussed above, the nature of the competence standard – assuming that the standard meets the ‘objective justification’ test – may place constraints on how it can be assessed. For example, ability to speak a language can only be tested orally, not in writing. See above Situations where the assessment process is bound up with the competence standard.
As regards whether more time should be given for a spoken examination, see above Time limits in exams.
There are also examples of possible reasonable adjustments in Oral assessments, and assessed presentations.
Other EqA claims
The other types of EqA claim can also apply, again assuming the question is not whether a particular competence standard can be applied. The possible types of claim are basically the same as those applying to claims against employers, namely:
- direct discrimination, e.g. this may be relevant where less favourable treatment is based on generalised, or stereotypical, assumptions about the disability or its effects. There is no ‘objective justification’ defence for this. (See ‘direct discrimination’, and paras 4.4 to 4.21 of the 2008 Code.)
- ‘discrimination arising from disability’ and ‘indirect discrimination’, ie other less favourable treatment, unless it is shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, ie objectively justified;
- a duty to make reasonable adjustments;
- harrassment – see example below; and
Which type of claim applies will not always be that important. As discussed above regarding time limits – Time limits: Relevant arguments on both reasonable adjustments and competence standards – similar arguments will often be relevant whether one is dealing with a claim for reasonable adjustments (the question whether an adjustment is reasonable), or discrimination arising from disability or indirect discrimination (the question whether the the objective justification defence applies).
An assessor from a motor mechanics qualifications body is judging a number of practical tasks performed in the workplace by a trainee motor mechanic who has a speech impairment. The assessor imitates the mechanic’s manner of speech and makes offensive remarks about him to the trainee’s line manager. This is harassment, whether or not the disabled man was present when the comments were made, because they were made with the intention of humiliating him.”
Revised Code of Practice: Trade Organisations, Qualifications Bodies and General Qualifications Bodies, 2008. Para. 4.37
Unless resolved through grievance procedures, disputes can normally be taken to an Employment Tribunal (subject to a time limit). ACAS can get involved to conciliate, and indeed must now be approached before a tribunal claim is submitted. However the Employment Tribunal is not used where a statutory appeal is available (EqA s.120(7)), such as in the case of the General Medical Council.