The UK’s army of carers are celebrating a landmark victory after an employer was found to have acted unlawfully in refusing a woman time off work to care for her disabled son.
The European Court of Justice upheld the case of “discrimination by association” brought by Sharon Coleman against a London law firm.
Campaigners said the case was “historic”, and gives new rights to the UK’s six million carers, including those looking after elderly people.
The ruling is the first example of how legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of disability can, instead of applying exclusively to disabled people, be extended to offer protection to their carers.
Imelda Redmond (pictured), chief executive of Carers UK, said: “This is an historic step towards true equality for carers.”
Coleman was working for Attridge Law in south London in 2002 when she gave birth to Oliver, who suffers from respiratory problems including apnoeic attacks which suddenly disrupt breathing.
She took voluntary redundancy in March 2005 and claimed she was forced to resign after suffering unfavourable treatment and harassment.
In addition to banning her from returning to the same job after coming back from maternity leave, bosses accused her of being “lazy” when she asked for time off to care for Oliver, among other insults directed at her and her son.
Further hearing planned
Coleman took a claim for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination to an employment tribunal, which was referred to the European Court of Justice.
Judges there found her treatment was directly related to her child’s disability. Her case will now go back to a UK tribunal to decide if discrimination by association is contrary to UK law.
In a statement issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported her case, Coleman said she was “thrilled” by the decision, which “will mean so much to so many people”.
Balancing caring and working commitments
The Commission’s legal director, John Wadham, said: “In this day and age people increasingly have to balance caring responsibilities with work and it is vitally important that they are able to do so without being discriminated against.”
Chris Benson, a solicitor specialising in discrimination in the workplace at London law firm Leigh Day, said: “The significance of this ruling is huge. Whereas the 2006 Flexible Working Regulations gave people the right to request more flexible working hours, this could mean the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act can be used to allow carers more favourable treatment than other employees who are not carers.”
European court backs mother’s discrimination claim