A mother who claims she was forced to quit her job to look after her disabled child has won the first round in a landmark legal case which could bring new rights to millions of the UK’s carers.
The European Court of Justice ruled today that Sharon Coleman had suffered “discrimination by association” at the hands of her former employer, a London law firm.
Coleman alleged she was called “lazy” by Attridge Law for requesting time off to care for her four-year-old son, Oliver, who was born with a rare condition which affected his breathing and is also deaf.
She resigned from her job as a legal secretary after claiming she was not allowed as much flexibility in her work as parents of able-bodied children and she was subjected to abusive and insulting remarks.
The legal victory, which is due to be ratified by a panel of European judges later this year, is being heralded as a significant step in improving the rights of Britain’s estimated six million carers.
Delivering the judgement today, advocate-general Poiares Maduro said Coleman’s case raised an issue of direct discrimination. “She is not complaining of the impact a neutral measure had on her as the mother and carer of a disabled son, but claims that she was singled out and targeted by her employer precisely because of her disabled son.”
After accepting voluntary redundancy in March 2006, Coleman, who is the primary carer for her son, brought a claim for constructive dismissal five months later. She said her bosses had accused her of using her child to manipulate her working conditions and failed to deal properly with a grievance she lodged against her ill-treatment.
Imelda Redmond, chief executive of Carers UK, said the decision was a positive step towards achieving true equality for carers who formed the “bedrock” of communities and society.
“This landmark legal opinion means that employers will have to alter the way they treat carers in their workforce,” she said. “Every employer will have to look at their recruitment and employment practices and make sure they are not discriminating against carers.”
Kate Jopling, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said the case should act as an important “wake-up call”. She added that recognising and respecting the rights of carers could transform the lives of millions of people who care for sick, elderly or disabled friends and relatives.