Employers can be liable for sexual harassment by a third party, says Anca Thomson

Discrimination is generally defined as the prejudicial treatment of an individual or a group of individuals based on certain characteristics. There are several known types of discrimination, including race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation and, not least, age.

In the UK, discrimination cases have become more frequent as employees have become more assertive and aware of their legal rights. The simplicity of the tribunal procedure and the lack of any requirement for a qualifying period have also contributed to this trend. Discrimination claims do not have an upper limit of compensation and are thus attractive even to those who have not, in fact, been discriminated against.

Recently, a disabled local-authority employee who suffered discrimination won £90,000 in compensation. The claimant was employed by Aberdeen City Council, had a recognised back-pain condition and was recommended by her specialist to use a certain specialised chair, but the council refused to provide it, making it impossible for her to work.

Discrimination is a growing area. It is regulated by several statutes and is continuously being developed by case law. However it is regulated, though, it remains a subjective area, sensitive and personal to those in question.

Sex discrimination in the UK was outlawed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, while discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was recognised with the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Recently, a lesbian couple have won £5,000 in compensation from their estate agent as a result of discrimination. Their estate agent put an advertisement for their property on the site www.rightmove.co.uk and referred to it as belonging to a lesbian couple, to their dismay. Even though the award itself was not large, the case is important from a discrimination point of view.

Sex discrimination has long been an area of controversy, especially in respect of unequal pay between men and women in the workplace. Due to changes brought about by case law, tribunals now tend to ask employers to justify their actions and use objective criteria when they establish systems that allow pay differences between the sexes.

Age discrimination has been recognised in UK since 1 October 2006, with the introduction of the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations. These regulations were designed to protect people of all ages who were directly or indirectly discriminated against as a result of their age or apparent age. Employers can justify discrimination if they can prove that the less favourable treatment was used in order to achieve a legitimate aim.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Amendment) Regulations 2008 came into force on 6 April. Under the new regulations, employers can be liable for sexual harassment committed by a third party, such as a client or supplier. This could have implications in all sorts of circumstances, including client entertainment.