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Fair play on the fairway and the drive for equality

The Equality Act 2010 deals primarily with the promotion of equal opportunities in the public sector and in employment law. However, it goes much further, and also deals with unlawful discrimination in private clubs and other associations, and there is likely to be significant change in how many golf clubs in Scotland are run.

So, what are the main implications for golf? The act, which came into force on 1 October 2010, covers clubs with 25 or more members with rules which regulate who can be a member, involving a genuine selection process.

It is now unlawful to discriminate against members, associates and guests, or people seeking to become members or guests, because of "protected characteristics" - listed in the act as age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; race (including ethnic origin, national origin, colour, nationality); religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.

One example could be a private members' golf club, with mixed membership, but which requires female members to play only on certain days while allowing male members to play at all times. This would amount to direct sex discrimination.

An exception applies to age discrimination, as the government is looking at how best clubs should be permitted to treat people of various ages differently, where there are beneficial or justifiable reasons for doing so. One justifiable reason might be offering concessions to older people.

Private golf clubs can continue to offer different types of membership at different prices or on different terms, although each type of membership must be open to all.

Likewise, single-sex clubs can continue to operate, as the government takes the view they serve a valid role in catering for the particular needs or interests of members. As such, men-only bars can continue in men-only clubs, while women-only clubs could, if they choose, refuse to accept male guests or associates.

Significantly, mixed-membership clubs must ensure facilities are available to all on an equal basis, which means any men-only bars are not allowed. When appointing a club captain, it is likely that in the interests of fairness there must be selection processes which place men and women on an equal standing.

Separate competitions for men and women are allowed on the grounds that private clubs can treat men and women differently due to factors such as physical strength, stamina or physique.

If someone thinks they have been the subject of unlawful discrimination they can take action in the sheriff court, which could result in the award of damages for any harm suffered or for injured feelings.

Although the act introduces additional provisions dealing with members and guests, clubs should also be mindful of their range of duties as employers.

Source: Lorna Gibb, The Scotsman, Sunday, 23rd January, 2011