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Consumer Rights.

How to complain about discrimination in health and care services

We explain what counts as unlawful discrimination, and what to do if you’re a victim of it.
Which?Editorial team

If you’ve been subjected to unlawful discrimination when using health or social care services, know that the law is on your side with the Equality Act 2010.

There are a few ways you can address unlawful discrimination. You may be able to solve the problem informally but, if necessary, you can take further action.

What counts as discrimination?

Whether unfair treatment in health and care services counts as unlawful discrimination will depend on the reason for the treatment, who it’s carried out by, and the type of behaviour involved.

It’s only unlawful discrimination if you’re treated unfairly because of any one or more of the following, which are called the protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage/ civil partnership
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Unlawful discrimination can be carried out by anyone within social or health care. This includes anyone who is working for the service (NHS or private) and those who work directly on your healthcare needs, such as professional medical staff, care home workers and other staff members, including receptionists and cleaners.

Discrimination doesn’t need to be direct to be unlawful. In fact, there are a few different types of behaviour which can amount to unlawful discrimination:

  • Direct: you’re treated differently and worse than others because of one or more of the above protected characteristics.
  • Indirect: a policy, rule or way of doing things that puts you and other people like you at a disadvantage compared to others.
  • Discrimination arising from disability: you’re treated unfairly because of something connected to your disability
  • Duty to make reasonable adjustments: reasonable steps are not taken to resolve something that puts you at a disadvantage because of your disability.
  • Harassment: you’re treated in an offensive, frightening, degrading, humiliating or distressing way.
  • Victimisation: you’re treated badly because you’ve complained about discrimination – or someone thinks you have.

Making an informal complaint about discrimination

It’s often best to attempt to resolve problems informally first. It may quickly stop the problem from getting worse, and the expense of legal action can be avoided.

You can raise an informal complaint directly with the care provider. This could be with either the person who discriminated against you, or the organisation that employs them.

You can do this in person, or by letter/email. If you decide that you’d rather talk to them about it, keep a record of the conversation and note the date and time. It’s then worth following up the chat with a letter that outlines what was discussed.

When you make an informal complaint, make sure you include the following pieces of information.

  • A description of the service you tried to use.
  • The names and job titles of those involved.
  • A short description of what happened, including a date and time of the incident.
  • An explanation of how the incident affected you.
  • What you want the organisation to do now. This could be anything from an apology to compensation.
  • When you expect a reply.

Making a formal complaint about discrimination

You can raise a formal complaint without raising it informally first – or you may decide to do this if you’re not satisfied with how your informal complaint was handled.

You’ll be able to raise a formal complaint using the care provider’s complaints procedure.

In your complaint, make sure you cover the following areas. 

  • A description of what happened – include relevant dates and times, and the names of anyone involved.
  • An explanation of how the discrimination has affected you.
  • What you want to happen next.
  • When you expect your reply.
  • Your name and contact details.

For more detailed guidance, read our guide on how to make a complaint about a care provider.

What if the issue remains unresolved?

If your local authority is funding your care, complain to them if you’re not satisfied with the provider’s resolution of your complaint. All local authorities are required to have an official complaints procedure, which you should be able to find on their website.

If the issue has still not been satisfactorily resolved, you could escalate your complaint to the care regulator or the ombudsman. Each country in the UK has its own independent healthcare regulatory body, which is responsible for keeping a register of care providers, as well as a public services ombudsman.

See our guide on making complaints to find out which regulator, body or ombudsman you should get in touch with, and contact details for them.

You might also want to take your discrimination claim to the civil courts. However, this should be seen as a last resort – and the court will want to know whether you’ve considered using an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service. This is where people on different sides of a dispute use an independent professional to help them find a solution. To use one of these, get in touch with the Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS), which can help you find a mediator or councillor.

  • Call the Equality Advisory Support Service helpline to find out more about using a mediator or councillor to resolve a dispute: 0808 800 0082

If you do want to take a discrimination claim to the civil courts, bear in mind that you’ll need to do this within six months of the discrimination taking place.

Can discrimination be justified?

In some cases where treatment could constitute discrimination, a care provider may be able to justify its behaviour if it’s seen as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Essentially, discrimination could be justified if a care provider has imposed certain restrictions on certain people for health and safety reasons, or for the purposes of running an efficient service.

Whether the treatment or restriction is proportionate depends on whether it’s appropriate and necessary.

An example of how discrimination can be justified is if a care provider were to prohibit people with poor eyesight from taking part in certain activities. This may seem like discrimination in that someone with a disability is being treated less favourably than those with better eyesight – but it could be justified if it’s achieving the legitimate aim of protecting health and safety.