European network of legal experts in the non-discrimination field
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The information contained on this page represents the situation as of 1 January 2014 and is a summary of the country report produced by the country expert from the network. The summary can be downloaded here as well.

Aileen McColgan

Country context

The United Kingdom (UK) comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (NI), with the term Great Britain (GB) used to refer to England, Wales and Scotland. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, based around the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty. It has neither a written constitution nor an entrenched constitutional bill of rights but an extensive set of constitutional conventions establish what has been described as an unwritten constitution.

Main principles and definitions

There is no definition in statute or case law of “race” or “racial origin”: the legislation prohibits discrimination on “racial grounds”, which are defined as to include colour, nationality (including citizenship), and ethnic and national origins (s.9 Equality Act 2010). The meaning of “ethnic origins” and “ethnic group” has been clarified by the UK courts through precedent. “Religion”, “belief”, “age” or “sexual orientation” are not defined in detail in the Equality Act 2010 or the equivalent provisions of NI law.

Enforcing the law

Individuals who consider they have been discriminated against can bring legal proceedings, with cases involving allegations of employment-related discrimination (public sector and private sector) going to the employment tribunals (industrial tribunal or Fair Employment Tribunal in NI), and complaints concerning any other unlawful discrimination (by public sector or private sector bodies) going to the civil courts. The main remedy available is damages, which are calculated as in civil proceedings for tort. Injunctive relief can also be obtained.

Main legislation

As the UK has no written constitution, legislation is the primary tool for establishing anti-discrimination law in the UK. The UK has ratified all the major international human rights treaties and the main Council of Europe human rights instruments, including the ECHR, the Charter on Minority Languages and the Convention on Minority Rights. International treaties are not directly applicable in UK law unless incorporated by an Act of Parliament, although they can be used to interpret legislation in certain circumstances.The Human Rights Act 1998, which gives effect to the ECHR in UK law, can provide valuable protection in some contexts against discrimination.

Material scope

The UK anti-discrimination legislation applies to all sectors of employment, both public and private. The 2011 decision of the Supreme Court in Jivraj v Hashwani [2011] UKSC 40has cast significant doubt on the extent to which the EqA covers access to self-employment, as a result of which domestic legislation may well fail to comply with the Directives.

Equality bodies

The three previous GB equality commissions, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, have been replaced by a single Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in October 2007, which can support complainants in legal proceedings, has enforcement powers of its own, and also has powers to promote and encourage respect for equality of opportunity through research, public comments and other methods. There is a separate Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which has similar functions (and in places, greater powers relating to positive action) to those of the EHRC.

Go to the European Commission - Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities This initiative is financed by the EC Programme Progress. But the views expressed in this website do not necessarily reflect the official views of the EU institutions.