22nd Oct 2016

EU court gives boost to indirect disability rights

A preliminary judgement by the EU's top court on Thursday (31 January) could boost the rights of millions of employees taking care of disabled relatives and prevent them from indirect discrimination.

Poiares Maduro, the advocate general at the European Court of Justice said that UK national Sharon Coleman, a legal secretary in London, was unlawfully forced out of her job for demanding flexible hours to look after her disabled son.

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  • The court said anti-discrimination laws should also protect people connected with the disabled (Photo:

He argued she had suffered from "discrimination by association" and suggested that EU laws that guarantee fair treatment at work for disabled people extended to those connected with them.

"[It] protects people who, although not themselves disabled, suffer direct discrimination and/or harassment in the field of employment and occupation because they are associated with a disabled person," he said.

"A robust conception of equality entails that these subtler forms of discrimination should also be caught by anti-discrimination legislation," the legal adviser added.

His opinion is likely to set the tone for a final decision due to be taken by a panel of European judges later this year. In most cases, the court tends to follow the initial legal advice.

Ms Coleman has welcomed the early verdict. "I am delighted that we are one step nearer to stopping people with caring responsibilities like me from being badly treated and harassed at work," she said, according to BBC.

"It has taken a lot of courage to fight this case, but no-one should have to choose between caring for disabled relatives and their job," she added.

She was working at the London-based Attridge Law firm when she gave birth to a disabled son in 2002. She claims she was forced to leave her job three years later because she was not allowed as much flexibility in her work as parents of other children.

Campaigners for carers have also praised the initial legal victory at the EU court. "This landmark legal opinion means that employers will have to alter the way they treat carers in their workforce," said Imelda Redmond, of Carers UK.

However, the UK's Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) suggested the verdict could cause "resentment" between workers and "sour industrial relations in the workplace", with employers possibly getting accused of favouritism towards some employees.

The problem could become acute, particularly for small companies where other staff would have to pick up colleagues' work, the FSB suggested, according to the BBC.

British labour law experts also suggest that - if confirmed by the full EU court panel - there could be a significant rise in claims of indirect discrimination at workplace.

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