The Equality Act 2006 will create a new framework to challenge discrimination and promote equality and diversity. Among other things, the act has so far changed the legal definition of "religion or belief" to expressly cover lack of religion or belief. It has created a gender-equality duty that requires public bodies to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. And it has extended discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and sexual orientation to cover the provision of goods, facilities and services.
The act will also establish a single equality body, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which starts its functions on 1 October, with Trevor Phillips as its chair.
It will take over the functions of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission. The CEHR will also have responsibility in respect of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation, age and the promotion of human rights.
The body has specific duties to promote understanding of the importance of equality and diversity, to encourage good practice and to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination and harassment. It will monitor the effectiveness of the equality and human rights enactments and provide advice and recommendations on the law. It will also have general powers to publish or otherwise disseminate ideas or information and can issue statutory codes of practice in all the areas of discrimination legislation.
The organisation will have enforcement powers. It will be able to carry out investigations into whether or not a person has committed an unlawful act and it will issue unlawful act notices. These might require the person concerned to prepare an action plan setting out how the unlawful act will cease and the action to be taken.
The CEHR can apply to the courts for an order within five years of an action plan coming into force to require the discriminator to comply with it. A failure to comply with the order will be a criminal offence.
The CEHR will have the power to institute or intervene in judicial review or other legal proceedings when the proceedings are relevant to any of the CEHR's functions. It will also be given powers to bring legal proceedings in respect of the relevant provisions of the discrimination legislation that prohibit unlawful advertising, instructions and pressure to discriminate.
- Emma Burrows isa partner and head of the employment group at Trowers & Hamlins solicitors.