The right to be free from discrimination is protected by Article 14 of the Human Rights Act.

This is not a stand-alone right to be free from discrimination. It’s a right not to be discriminated against when you are relying on your other rights in the Human Rights Act.  The right to be free from discrimination is sometimes called a ‘piggy-back’ right. This means that when one of your other rights is at risk, you can also raise your right to non-discrimination if you think that is an issue.

The Human Rights Act, unlike other discriminations laws such as the Equality Act, is open-ended (the Equality Act prohibits discrimination on 9 grounds, called protected characteristics, which are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage & civil partnership, pregnancy & maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation). The Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against you, setting out a list of reasons which includes sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth. It is open-ended because it then says “or other status”, which courts have decided includes age, gender identity, sexual orientation, health and disability, parental and marital status, immigration status. This can also include experiencing discrimination for combined reasons – such as being a young, black, disabled person. The Human Rights Act puts a legal duty on public bodies to respect and protect this right, whereas the Equality Act applies to public and private bodies, including shops and restaurants.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

Discrimination might involve you being treated less favourably than other people in the same situation based on something about yourself, such as a characteristic or status you have.

It could also involve a public official failing to treat you differently when you are in a very different situation to others, or applying rules to you that have a worse impact on you.

Some examples of where your right to be free from discrimination might be at risk include:

  • A public official deciding not to treat your physical health problem because you have mental health issues or you lack capacity to make certain decisions.
  • Making assumptions about where you should live based on discriminatory attitudes about physical or mental health conditions you may have.
  • If you are treated worse by a local authority because you are a family carer, as opposed to a non-family carer.
  • A school uniform policy which does not respect students’ religious beliefs.
  • Policies on benefits which disadvantage survivors of domestic abuse – you can read more about this here.
  • Being denied the right to marry and have a family with someone purely because you have a learning disability.
  • Bullying or harassment.

Can my right to be free from discrimination be restricted by a public official?

Yes, sometimes. Not all discrimination is against the law – sometimes it can be for a good reason. If a public official is treating you differently for some reason, they must be able to show that it can be objectively and reasonably justified.

You can talk to a public official about their decision or action where you think discrimination is an issue, and you can ask them to tell you how this is objectively and reasonably justified.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right: 

This means public officials should not discriminate against you, unless they can show that treating you differently is objectively and reasonably justified.

To protect your right: 

This means that people working in public bodies have to protect your right to be free from discrimination. If they are aware, or they should be aware, that you are being wrongly discriminated against, they should take action to address this to protect your right.

To fulfil your right: 

This means that when things go wrong, they should be investigated and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again.

Laurie’s story

Laurie was a 51-year old man with Down’s syndrome and dementia. During a hospital stay he had a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order put on his file without him or his family being consulted. A ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order, also known as DNR, DNAR or DNACPR, is an instruction to the medical team not to give medical treatment if a person’s breathing or heartbeat has stopped.

The reasons written on the order by the doctor were: “Down’s syndrome, unable to swallow… bed bound, learning difficulties”. Their reasons were based not on a clinical analysis of chances of survival or the medical impact of attempting resuscitation but on assumptions about Laurie’s quality of life. As his life was at stake he was able to challenge this as discrimination linked to (or “piggy-backing” onto) his right to life (Article 2). He started a human rights legal case but it was settled out of court and the NHS Trust apologised.

Robert’s story

Robert is a disabled gay man who receives support from the local authority. His support team had a policy of assisting the people they worked with to participate in social activities, when they wanted to. Robert asked if a support worker could accompany him to a gay pub. His request was denied even though other heterosexual service users were regularly supported to attend pubs and clubs of their choice. During a BIHR training session, Robert’s advocate realised that Robert could challenge the decision by invoking his right to respect for private life (Article 8) and his right not to be discriminated against on grounds of his sexual orientation.

(These are real-life stories, but names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.)

Watch a video of BIHR staff talking about the right to be free from discrimination