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Can I choose my customers? The right to refuse service in UK law

Oct 9, 2023 | Uncategorised

The news that former UKIP leader Nigel Farage had his bank accounts closed by Coutts brought an old legal question back into public discourse: what rights do companies have to refuse service?

There are situations in which turning down service seems the most sensible thing to do. This could be because you’re concerned about health and safety or fear that offering the service will damage your reputation – in short, that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

But what are the legal rights and wrongs? The answer varies from industry to industry but there are two underlying principles.

The first is that you can refuse service for a “legitimate reason”, so long as it’s applied equally to all customers. The second is that you can’t refuse service on the grounds of a protected characteristic.

The right to refuse service

UK law states that you can refuse service to a customer or client so long as you have a legitimate reason. This reason has to be applied fairly and consistently across the board.

This is to avoid cases where service is refused because the business just doesn’t like the look of somebody, or because they have a protected characteristic like gender, sexuality or race.

Common reasons to refuse service include aggressive behaviour, intoxication, threats to the safety of staff or customers, and non-compliance with a dress code.

From a legal point of view, the most important thing to note is that these are all legitimate reasons so long as the business has made its expectations clear.

A nightclub, for instance, can operate a “no jeans” policy – but it has to be across the board. If you make an exception for one denim-wearer, you could be accused of unfair refusal.

Similarly, the coffee stall in Norwich that made the news in 2012 for refusing to serve people who were on their phones was well within its rights. But if it had made an exception it could hypothetically have been accused of discrimination.

Clear expectations, then, are paramount – and so is the need to keep a record of incidents.

If you work in a bar, for example, you may have to deal with a lot of drunk patrons and you will have to use your discretion to decide who to serve and who not to serve. It’s important to document any refusal of service, whether in writing or on CCTV, so that you don’t end up being accused of unfair treatment.

When is refusal to serve classed as discrimination?

The main piece of legislation related to discrimination in the UK is the Equality Act 2010. This makes it clear that you can’t refuse to serve a customer because of a protected characteristic.

Protected characteristics are:

  • Age (if you’re 18 plus)
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

If you do refuse service on any of these grounds, you could face a discrimination claim. You could also face legal action if you indirectly discriminate – for instance, if a dress code excludes people who wear religious dress.

This kind of refusal of service made the news in 2022 when pub chain Greene King removed 12 Irish Travellers from one of its pubs. They made a claim of unlawful direct racial discrimination and received thousands in compensation.

Sometimes, things are less clear-cut, as in the notorious “gay cake” case.

The case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd

In 2014, a gay rights activist named Gareth Lee ordered a cake that included the slogan “support gay marriage” from a Christian-owned bakery in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. At the time, gay marriage wasn’t legal in Northern Ireland.

The bakery refused on religious grounds. They said that making the cake would conflict with their opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds.

Mr Lee brought a claim in Belfast County Court, arguing that he had been denied service because of his sexuality, religious belief and political opinion.

The bakery responded that they didn’t refuse service because Mr Lee was gay. They would have refused to make the cake in question regardless of his sexuality. It was, they said, a refusal to promote a political opinion they didn’t share.

The case lasted until 2018 when the Supreme Court judged in the bakery’s favour. It argued that “nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe”.

Lee appealed this judgment in the European Court of Human Rights – but his appeal was refused.

This case centred on a very specific interaction and it’s hard to draw any specific lesson from it. However, it remains an interesting example of tensions that can exist in the workplace when religious belief and LGBT rights are brought into conflict.

Can a solicitor turn down a client?

From one point of view, solicitors are much like plumbers, electricians and other service providers. They may find themselves in a position where they want to turn down a client.

As with all professions, they can’t do so on the grounds of a protected characteristic. But they can, the Law Society says, for the following reasons – so long as the reasons are enforced consistently:

  • They don’t have time.
  • The client can’t pay.
  • The case is outside their area of expertise.
  • There are ethical considerations (for instance, they suspect the would-be client is laundering money).
  • They have a conflict of interest.

Conclusion

This isn’t a simple area of the law. Whether you’re a customer or client who believes they were unfairly refused service, or a business accused of doing so you might be unsure where you stand legally – and what you should do next.

In any case, it’s advisable to seek legal advice early on. Getting expert guidance equips you with the facts you need to proceed with confidence and gives you a clear idea of your chances of success.

Are you looking for a trusted commercial law solicitor? Here at Milners, we deliver jargon-free advice so you always know where you stand. Feel free to get in touch for a free initial consultation.

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