Landmark Supreme Court ruling upholds some charities' right to restrict services

The housing association at the centre of case says it could have had 'serious ramifications for the entire faith charity sector' if it had lost

The Supreme Court in London
The Supreme Court in London

The Supreme Court has upheld the idea that some charities can restrict their services to certain groups of people without falling foul of equalities law. 

A judgment from the Supreme Court today rejected an appeal from a homeless single mother who had argued that she and her four children had been discriminated against by a housing association set up to provide homes for the Orthodox Jewish community, of which she was not a member. 

Agudas Israel Housing Association contended that the demand for its housing from the Orthodox Jewish community outstripped its supply of available properties, meaning that in practice all of its homes went to people from that group. 

The appellant claimed she had suffered unlawful discrimination on the grounds of race or religion in contravention of the Equality Act 2010 because she had been identified as in priority need for housing by Hackney Council in London but was not made an offer by AIHA, despite suitable accommodation being available. 

Her claim had previously been dismissed at both the divisional court and the Court of Appeal. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling said it was reasonable for AIHA to use proportionate “positive action” to alleviate disadvantage experienced by people who share a protected characteristic, such as a particular religious faith. 

It also concluded that a charity would not contravene equality law if it restricted the provision of benefits to people sharing a protected characteristic in line with a charitable object, providing that was a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” or for the purpose of preventing or compensating for a disadvantage linked to the protected characteristic. 

Ita Symons, chief executive of AIHA, said the case could have had “serious ramifications for the entire faith charity sector” if it had gone the other way. 

“While it was never our intention to provide more than housing for our community, I think today’s judgment means that we will have a much wider impact and that our work will enable other faith charities to continue to provide for their communities’ for the foreseeable future,” she said. 

A spokesperson from the law firm Farrer & Co, which represented AIHA, said: “The Supreme Court’s decision is welcome clarification of the law in this area, and will provide comfort to charities whose organisations focus their efforts on particular groups of people, in line with their governing documents.”

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