What is discrimination?
Discrimination means being treated unfairly or less favourably than other people. However not all unfair treatment is discrimination that is against the law. Discrimination can happen in two ways:
- Direct – where someone treats someone less favourably than they would treat anyone else under the same or similar circumstances.
- Indirect – where a law, policy or practice seems to apply to everyone equally, but which actually affects a large number of people of a particular race, sex or other group because they cannot comply with it.
What are the laws about discrimination in Western Australia?
In WA, discrimination is covered by state, federal and international (human rights) laws. Each of these types of laws cover certain types of unfair treatment in certain circumstances. In Western Australia, most discrimination protections are found in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) (the state law) and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (the federal law).
Discrimination is a complex area of law. We cannot guarantee that what you have experienced will be covered by the law. The law also changes over time, so it’s very important to get legal advice about whether discrimination law will cover your problem.
In general, for discrimination to be against the law, it needs to:
- relate to at least one of the grounds or characteristics covered by discrimination law, and
- occur in one of the areas of life covered by discrimination law, and
- not fall under an exception or exemption.
Each of these elements are explained in more detail below.
What types of unfair treatment are covered by discrimination laws?
Unfair treatment that is against the law are called grounds or characteristics. The grounds of discrimination covered by state laws and federal laws are similar, but not exactly the same. Sometimes the way a ground is defined will mean that your situation is covered by federal laws but not state laws, or vice versa. Sometimes these differences can be tricky to work out.
Some examples of grounds of discrimination are age, race, disability, relationship status, sex, gender identity, intersex status, sexual orientation, and family responsibilities.
What areas of life are covered by discrimination laws?
For discrimination to be against the law, it also has to have happened in an area of life that is covered by discrimination law. Discrimination is not against the law everywhere. Discrimination is only against the law when it happens in an area of public activity. Private relationships with family, friends or flat mates are not areas of public activity.
The areas of discrimination covered by state laws and federal laws are similar, but not exactly the same. Sometimes the way an area is defined will mean that your situation is covered by federal laws but not state laws, or vice versa. Sometimes these differences can be tricky to work out.
Some examples of areas where discrimination laws apply are employment, education, accommodation, clubs and associations, goods and services, accessing public places or facilities, sport, and land.
What are the exceptions and exemptions to discrimination?
Not all unfair treatment is discrimination that is against the law. Sometimes there is a legal exception or exemption that might apply. For example, some parts of discrimination law do not apply to some organisations or situations.
Some exceptions apply to religious bodies, registered charitable organisations and organisations set up solely for the purpose of one sex or people with a particular relationship status. Whether an exception applies also depends on what area of life the unfair treatment occurred in.
Exceptions in discrimination law can be complex. They can also change over time, so it’s very important to get legal advice about whether discrimination law will cover your problem.
Equal Opportunity Commission WA
Australian Human Rights Commission
Reviewed: 4 March 2021