The term “protected characteristics” comes from the Equality Act 2010. Understanding what the protected characteristics are is important because any discriminatory or harassing behaviour is only unlawful if it is related to a relevant protected characteristic.
The definition of protected characteristics is found in section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act). There are nine protected characteristics which are:
- Age (all ages are protected, not just older people)
- Disability (a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on someone’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities)
- Gender reassignment (a person who is, has or is proposing to, reassign their sex)
- Marriage and civil partnership (someone who is married or a civil partner but, does not cover single status)
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Race (includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins)
- Religion or belief (or lack of religion or belief)
- Sexual orientation (includes orientation towards the same sex, opposite sex or either sex)
It’s important to note many of the protected characteristics have a special legal meaning and this may not be what the lay person would assume it to be. For example, the ordinary meaning of disability may suggest something less complex to the public such as a person in a wheelchair but, this is not what it means for the purposes of the Act.
Claims can only be brought under the Act in respect of a relevant protected characteristic. Personal characteristics which do not fall within this definition are not protected under discrimination law (for example, being fat or having ginger hair).
The first question for anyone considering whether they can enforce their rights under the Act is whether the treatment they are complaining about is because of or related to a protected characteristic?
This does not have to be their own protected characteristic. For example, a man could bring a claim for sexual harassment if he overheard a woman being abused by male colleagues and this was offensive to him personally.
It is also possible to bring a claim where the perpetrator mistakenly believes the victim has a certain protected characteristic but, in fact they do not.
In addition, claims are possible on the basis of the claimant’s association with someone who has a certain protected characteristic.