Discrimination / Police / Police Discrimination

What can I do if the police discriminate against me?

Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page.

What is discrimination in English law?

Discrimination is when you are treated worse than someone else because of a certain personal (also called protected) characteristic.

The Equality Act 2010 is the law which specifically protects you from discrimination in the UK. You also have protection under the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to discrimination by public bodies, such as the police.

What are protected characteristics?

There are 9 characteristics which are specifically protected by the Equality Act. They are known as “protected characteristics”. These are:

  1. age;
  2. disability;
  3. gender reassignment (inclusive of anyone who is trans – you can be at any stage in the transition process – from proposing to reassign your gender, to undergoing a process to reassign your gender, or having completed it);
  4. marriage and civil partnership;
  5. pregnancy and maternity;
  6. race (including a person’s colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins);
  7. religion or belief;
  8. sex; and
  9. sexual orientation.

Do I have a human right to not be treated unfairly or discriminated against?

Your human rights are set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’) and are protected in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’).

You have a right to be treated fairly and not be discriminated against under Article 14 of the ECHR. Article 14 does not give you a free-standing right not to be discriminated against, like the Equality Act does. However, it says that you must be able to access and benefit from all your other rights in the Human Rights Act without discrimination.

Article 14 of the ECHR protects many characteristics. This includes the “protected characteristics” under the Equality Act, but also extends further than this. For example, the Equality Act does not specifically protect non-binary people, whereas they may benefit from protection under Article 14. Article 8, the right to private and family life, will be engaged when considering questions relating to a person’s gender identity. This includes people who are non-binary.

Article 14 can be relevant whenever another right under the Human Rights Act is engaged. For example, something which restricted the Article 8 rights of a person, on the basis of them being non-binary, could potentially be a breach of Article 14. A court would have to consider on a case-by-case basis whether a particular law or restriction was in fact an unlawful breach of human rights.

HRA claims can only be brought against public bodies. This includes the police, NHS, Government departments and local authorities.  If you have experienced discrimination from a private body, such as a shop, service provider or a company you work for, you should instead look at bringing a claim under the Equality Act.

What types of discrimination are there?

There are four main types of discrimination covered by the Equality Act:

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination would happen if the police treat you worse than others because of a protected characteristic. For example, the police shouldn’t stop and search you because of your race, nationality or ethnic background. Direct discrimination is unlawful.

Direct discrimination by perception is where the police treat you worse than other because they believe you have a protected characteristic. For example, it would still be direct discrimination if the police stop and search you believe they think you are a certain race or nationality. It doesn’t matter that the police were wrong: direct discrimination by perception is also unlawful.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is where the police’s way of working (policies, practices and criteria) has a worse impact on you (and people who you share a protected characteristic with), even though it applies to everyone equally.

For example, sometimes the police decide to keep protestors in a kettle for several hours to control a crowd.  Although this decision would apply to all these protestors equally, it would likely have a worse impact on pregnant people and disabled people.

Indirect discrimination is unlawful unless there is a good reason, or an ‘objective justification’. This means the police must show that the policy or practice is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. You can read more about objective justifications here.


Harassment happens when:

  • the police (or any public body) act in a way you don’t want (the law calls this “engaging in unwanted behaviour”);
  • the behaviour is related to a protected characteristic; and
  • the purpose of the behaviour, or its effect, is to violate your dignity or create a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

For example, the police shouldn’t insult you or use transphobic language around you because you’re trans.

Harassment is unlawful.


The police shouldn’t treat you badly or put you in a worse position because you’ve done a protected act, or the police think you might do a protected act. A protected act is doing anything in connection with the Equality Act. This includes making a complaint under the Equality Act, or bringing court proceeding under the Equality Act.

An example might be if you complain about the police, and then other officers start treating you badly as a result.

Victimisation is unlawful.

What if the police are refusing to investigate my case?

The police can have a duty to investigate when someone has been subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, or when someone has died. However, this is quite a high bar.

Unfortunately, the law generally doesn’t require the police to investigate most crimes. In most cases, the police are free to decide not to open a criminal investigation.

The police also have a specific defence from discrimination claims about these decisions. This means that you can’t bring a civil claim against the police for not investigating your case, even when you believe that this decision was as a result of discrimination.

However, this exception is narrow. It is still worth speaking to a solicitor with expertise in discrimination law or other support services if you feel that you may have been discriminated against.

What are reasonable adjustments for disabled people?

As a public body, the police have the duty to take steps to reduce the negative impact their policies and ways of working can have on disabled people. This is called the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

For example, the police should consider adapting their complaints process to be more accessible to disabled people who need support with writing and speaking.

Not making reasonable adjustments for disabled people is also a form of discrimination.

If the police don’t make reasonable adjustments:

  • You can complain about their behaviour
  • You may be able to bring a legal claim against them under the Equality Act.

For more information on public bodies’ duty to make reasonable adjustments, see our page on disability discrimination here.

What is the Public Sector Equality Duty?

As a public body, the police must comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty (‘PSED’). This means that when they are making decisions and implementing policies, they always must have due regard to the following:

  1. The need to not discriminate, harass, victimise, or do anything else that is banned under the Equality Act.
  2. The need to foster good relations between people with a shared protected characteristic and those without it.
  3. The need to advance equal opportunities between people with a shared protected characteristic and those without it.

In practice, this usually means that when drawing up a policy or a plan, e.g. a plan for how to police a specific protest, the police will need to do an Equality Impact Assessment. An Equality Impact Assessment should look at how any plans will impact upon groups sharing different protected characteristics, and try to minimise any possible unlawful discrimination that may occur.

What can I do if the police discriminate against me?

Police complaints

If you consider that the police have discriminated against you, or if they have been rude, aggressive or unhelpful, you can make a police complaint.

See our page on police complaints for more information.

A complaint should be brought within 12 months of the incident that you are complaining about. If you are complaining more than 12 months later, you should explain why.

You should make it really clear in your complaint that you are alleging discrimination. The police have to follow specific guidelines when dealing with discrimination complaints and when responding to your complaint they should give a clear, evidence-based response to your allegation of discrimination.

The most valuable aspect of making a complaint is that it will be recorded. If you ask for a complaint to be recorded, the police are required to do so. Then, even if nothing else happens in your case, the evidence of your allegations will remain there. If future complaints are made about the same officer, this could be useful to show a pattern of behaviour.

The other potential (but rare) outcomes of a complaint about discrimination include:

  • Recognition of what happened and an apology;
  • Explaining how the individual and the organisation will learn from the complaint to stop the same thing happening again; and
  • Taking appropriate action in relation to any officer or staff member who has acted inappropriately, including disciplinary action where relevant.

Police forces have to pass certain, serious allegations of discriminatory conduct straight to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (‘IOPC’), an independent body which oversees the police complaints system in England and Wales. This includes where officers have engaged in behaviour that would amount to a criminal offence or would give rise to disciplinary proceedings and that behaviour has been aggravated by discrimination on the grounds of a protected characteristic, e.g. race.

If the complaint has been passed to the IOPC, the IOPC will decide what should happen following its investigation into the matter. In serious cases it can require disciplinary action against the officer(s) in question for misconduct or gross misconduct. This could lead to officers being given warnings, demoted in rank or even dismissed from the police force in the most serious cases. Where officers have engaged in behaviour that would amount to a criminal offence, the case may be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service and criminal proceedings may be brought against the officers.

Making a police complaint will not result in you being awarded compensation, even if the police recognise that they were at fault. For this, you would need to bring a civil legal action against the police.

Civil actions against the police

If you consider that the police have directly or indirectly discriminated against you, or harassed you, because of a protected characteristic, you may be able to bring a discrimination claim against the police.

You may have additional legal claims if the police have searched, arrested or detained you unlawfully or used force against you in a way that is not lawful.

For these types of claims, you would need to seek legal representation from a specialist solicitor, with expertise in Actions Against the Police. Legal aid may be available for these types of claims if you are eligible.

To find out if you’re eligible for legal aid, contact Civil Legal Advice on 0345 345 4 345 (9am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 12:30pm Saturday), or you can use their webform here. More details about the service it offers and eligibility can be found here.

To find a list of solicitors specialising in police law, use the Chambers & Partners online directory.

Note that the time limit for bringing a discrimination claim under the Equality Act is six months less one day from when the discrimination happened.

Time limits for other types of civil claims against the police are longer: three years or six years, depending on the claim. Speak to a specialist solicitor for more information.

Other sources of help on discrimination law

For free advice on discrimination law, you can contact the Equality Advisory Support Service (‘EASS’).

EASS gives advice to individuals in England, Scotland and Wales on discrimination issues and can explain to you your rights under the Equality Act and how it applies. They cannot provide you with legal advice or legal representation.

The EASS helpline can be contacted on 0808 800 0082 (9am to 7pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 2pm Saturday), or you can use their webform here. More details about the service it offers can be found on their website.

If you’ve been arrested

If you have been arrested or charged with an offence, the best thing you can do is get advice from a criminal defence lawyer. See our I need a lawyer page for more information about how to find one.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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