Discrimination / Police / Police Discrimination

What can I do if the police discriminate against me?

What is discrimination in English law?

Discrimination is where you are treated less favourably than someone else because of a certain personal characteristic.

The Equality Act 2010 is the law that specifically protects you from discrimination by public bodies and service providers, like the police, in the UK. You also have protection under the Human Rights Act 1998.

What are protected characteristics?

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

  • age;
  • disability;
  • 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);
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race (including a person’s colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins);
  • religion or belief;
  • sex;
  • 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 and are protected in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA).

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

Article 14 protects a broad range of 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.

This is because Article 8, the right to private and family life, will be engaged when considering questions relating to a person’s gender identity, including an individual’s identification as non-binary. Article 14 can be relevant whenever another right under the HRA is engaged, which means that anything which restricted the Article 8 rights of a person on the basis of them being non-binary could also be argued to be in 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, such as the police, NHS, Government departments and local authorities. Therefore, if you have experienced discrimination from a private body, such as a shop, service provider or a company you work for, it would only be open to you to bring a claim under the Equality Act.

What types of discrimination are there?

There are three main types of discrimination which you might be victim to at the hands of the police.

Direct discrimination

It is unlawful discrimination if the police treat you less favourably than they treat others because of a protected characteristic.

For example, the police shouldn’t stop and search you because of your race, nationality or ethnic background.

This is known as direct discrimination.

You are also protected by the Equality Act in situations where the police treat you less favourably than they treat others because they wrongly believe that you have a protected characteristic.

For example, if the police stop and search you because of what they think your race or nationality is, the fact that they were wrong is not a defence.

This is known as direct discrimination by perception.

Indirect discrimination

It is unlawful discrimination if the police have a rule, policy or practice which applies in the same way to everyone, but which puts people who share one of the protected characteristics at a particular disadvantage when compared with people who don’t share that characteristic.

For example, the police may decide to kettle a group of protesters at a protest for several hours. Although this decision applies in the same way to all the protesters in that group, it is likely to put pregnant people and people with certain physical disabilities at a particular disadvantage if they are likely to suffer particularly badly from having to stand for a significant period of time.

This is known as indirect discrimination.

It may not be unlawful to discriminate in this way if the police can show that the policy or practice is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.


It is unlawful harassment under the Equality Act if the police engage in unwanted behaviour related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or which creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

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

This is known as harassment.

What are reasonable adjustments for disabled people?

If you’re disabled, the police have a duty to make reasonable adjustments where necessary to remove any substantial disadvantage you may face in interacting with them.

This is known as a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

For example, if you want to make a complaint against the police and you have a disability which makes written or verbal communication difficult, the police should support you to make your complaint in a way which is accessible to you.

Failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people is also a form of discrimination.

Therefore, if the police fail to meet these requirements, you can complain about their behaviour and you may be able to bring a legal claim against them under the Equality Act.

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 regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity for people who share protected characteristics.

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. This will look at how this plan 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 how to do this here.

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.

Police forces have to pass certain, serious allegations of discriminatory conduct straight to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which is the police ombudsman. 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.

The outcome of a police complaint about discrimination could be:

  • 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
  • Taking appropriate action in relation to any officer or staff member who has acted inappropriately, including disciplinary action where relevant.

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 or officers in question for misconduct or gross misconduct. This could lead to officers being given warnings, demoted in rank or even sacked 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 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 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. 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 here.

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 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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