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Dealing with sex discrimination

If you believe that a landlord, council, mortgage lender or other service provider has discriminated against you because of your gender, you may be able to take action against them. This page looks at your options.

If you have experienced sex discrimination in the workplace or at school, college or university, different rules apply. Visit the website to find out more.

Can I take action?

Before you take action against sex discrimination, you need to be sure that:

  • you received less favourable treatment because of your gender, and not for any other reason, and
  • a person of the opposite sex in a comparable situation would have been treated more favourably, and
  • the situation in which the discrimination took place is covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Read the page about sex discrimination to find out what 'less favourable treatment' means and which situations the Equality Act covers.

Was there any other reason why you might have received this treatment?

You need to be sure that the reason you have received poor or unfair service is connected to your gender. For example, if a landlord refuses to let a flat to you, could this be because you have a history of rent arrears, rather than the fact that you are female?

Would another person of the opposite sex have received different treatment?

If a company or organisation has one rule for one sex and another for the other, this is a clear indicator of discrimination. For example, if a mortgage lender has a policy that a woman has to have a guarantor for a mortgage but a man doesn't, this would be sex discrimination.

Does the Equality Act cover the situation?

If you want to take legal action, you also need to make sure that the Equality Act applies to your situation. For example:

  • if a landlord refuses to rent a self-contained flat to a man because they only want to take on female tenants, this is covered by the Equality Act
  • if a group of three female students advertise for a female flatmate, this won't be covered, as this situation is exempt from the law
  • if your landlord makes demeaning or abusive sexual comments about you, this is sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination
  • if a neighbour makes inappropriate comments to you, this won't be covered, as the Equality Act doesn't apply to personal situations.

What if the Equality Act doesn't apply?

If the Equality Act doesn't apply to the situation, you may be able to take action under different laws if the incident is considered sexual harassment.

What should I do before I take action?

Before you take any action against the person or organisation that has discriminated against you, you need to decide what you want the outcome of your complaint to be. For example, you may want to:

  • get a service you were denied (for example, to rent a property you were initially refused)
  • receive compensation
  • get an apology
  • persuade or force the person or organisation to change their policies, so the same thing won't happen to someone else.

Sex discrimination can be difficult to prove, so it's important that you gather as much evidence as you can.

  • Make detailed notes on when, where and how the discrimination took place.
  • Keep any letters, emails or other communications sent to you by the person or organisation who discriminated against you.
  • If possible, find people who would be willing to act as witnesses to any acts of discrimination.

This will also help if you decide to take your case to court.

How do I raise the issue with the service provider?

Before you consider taking legal action, you should try to resolve the issue informally, by complaining in person and/or in writing to the individual or organisation. Ask them to explain why they have treated you this way and set out clearly what you want to happen to resolve the situation. Use the organisation's official complaints procedure if there is one - all councils, for example, have a formal complaints procedure.

If the person who has discriminated against you is a member of a professional organisation, you can also make a complaint to that association. For example:

Before you make your complaint, it may help to talk to an adviser at a Citizens Advice Bureau or at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

If complaining doesn't get you anywhere, you can use the questionnaire procedure under the Equality Act, and/or take legal action. If the complaints procedure is moving very slowly, you may need to start legal action before your complaint is resolved. This is because you must send out the questionnaire and/or apply to the sheriff court within six months of the discrimination taking place.

How do I send a sex discrimination questionnaire?

If you don't get a satisfactory response from the person or organisation using their complaints procedure, you can send them a special questionnaire asking them to explain their treatment of you under the Equality Act. If you've already started legal action, you need to get permission from the court before sending out the questionnaire.

How do I send out the questionnaire?

You can download a copy of the questionnaire from the Home Office website.

You need to fill in details of the incident, explaining why you think you have been discriminated against. You can also ask the person or organisation questions about the way they treated you, or about their policies - for example, if you have been turned down for a flat, you could ask the landlord to tell you who got the flat instead of you and why. The form then leaves space for the person or organisation to respond with their side of the story. It may help to talk to an adviser at the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) or Citizens Advice before you fill in the form.

Why should I send out the questionnaire?

Sending out the questionnaire can help you decide whether or not to take legal action. If the person or organisation has a good explanation for the way they treated you, it may not be worth pursuing the case. However, if they don't have a good explanation, or they don't return the questionnaire at all, this will strengthen your case. Again, you can talk this through with an adviser or solicitor.

When should I send out the questionnaire?

You need to send the questionnaire out within six months of the discrimination taking place. Remember to keep a copy of the questionnaire in a safe place.

Can the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) help?

If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your gender and your situation is covered by anti-discrimination laws you can get help and advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

What can the EHRC do to help?

The EHRC can:

  • offer you advice on your options
  • in some cases, help you take your case to court, if this will test or improve the law.

How do I contact the EHRC?

You can contact the EHRC by telephone, text phone, letter, email or fax - you can find contact details on their website.

How do I start legal action?

Taking legal action can be time consuming, expensive and stressful, so think carefully before following this course of action. Speak to a solicitor before making any decisions.

Is there a deadline?

If you decide to take your case to court, you must apply within six months of the act of discrimination taking place.

Will I need a solicitor?

If you decide to take legal action, you'll need to get some advice and help from a solicitor. To find a solicitor who specialises in anti-discrimination law:

Unless you are entitled to legal aid, you will have usually have to pay for a solicitor's services. However, you may be able to get a free initial interview at a law centre or by arrangement through your local Citizens Advice.

If your case is particularly complicated you may be able to get legal representation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

How will I prove I've been discriminated against?

Sex discrimination can be difficult to prove, so it's important that you put together as much evidence as you can. A solicitor will be able to help you with this.

You don't need to prove 'beyond all reasonable doubt' that sex discrimination has taken place. The court just needs to believe that it's likely to have taken place and that the other person or organisation doesn't have a good explanation for the way they've treated you.

What can the court decide?

If the court decides that  you have been discriminated against because of your gender, they may:

  • order the person or organisation to apologise to you
  • order them to change any discriminatory policies
  • award you compensation for loss or for hurt feelings
  • make any other order they think is appropriate.

If they decide that sex discrimination has not taken place, you will usually have to pay the legal costs of the other person or organisation.

If you can agree to a compromise (for example, a suitable amount of compensation and/or an apology), you may be able to settle your case out of court, before it reaches a hearing. This will save you a lot of time, money and stress.

How much will it cost?

Taking a case to court isn't cheap - your solicitor should be able to give you an estimate of the costs. If you're on a low income, you may be able to get legal aid to help with the costs.

What about sex discrimination at work?

If you have experienced sexual discrimination in an employment situation (for example, when applying for a job or in the workplace), you should take your case to an employment tribunal instead of the sheriff court. You can find out more about this from the Equality and Human Rights Commission or websites.

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