Landmark Victory For Carers On Flexible Hours

Millions of workers who look after sick, disabled and elderly relatives could be able to demand flexible hours after a landmark legal judgement.
Carers are set to receive far greater employment protection after the European court victory by a mother who claimed she was forced to resign from her job as a legal secretary just because she has a disabled son.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg agreed that Sharon Coleman suffered “discrimination by association” when she was refused time off to look after her young child.

Its ruling declared that the EU directive which bans employment discrimination on grounds of disability covers carers as well as disabled people themselves.

The estimated 2.5 million people in Britain who hold down jobs as well as looking after family members will now be able to ask bosses for flexible working practices, such as different office hours or the ability to work from home, without fear of being sacked.

They will not be guaranteed the right to flexible working, however, particularly as the ruling only applies to the carer of a disabled child.

But the ruling could leave many employers unwittingly at risk of claims from workers who believe they are being discriminated against because of their caring responsibilities.

Marian Bloodworth, an employment specialist at Lovells solicitors, warned: “It will be particularly difficult for employers to know if they are at risk of such a claim, particularly if the employee does not tell them that their relative is disabled.

“Employers will be put in a very difficult position as there are real sensitivities – not to mention confidentiality and data protection issues – in asking for medical evidence of disability from someone with whom they have no employment relationship.”

Previously it had been assumed that only disabled people themselves could make disability discrimination claims.

But Mrs Coleman, who worked as a legal secretary for Attridge Law in London, argued that she was discriminated against and harassed after her son Oliver was born with serious breathing and hearing problems in 2002.

She wanted to return to the job she had done before taking maternity leave, as well as flexible working arrangements, but claimed her requests were turned down while those of other parents were granted.

Mrs Coleman claimed she was branded “lazy” and that “abusive and insulting” comments were made about her and her sick son.

She began a claim for constructive dismissal three years ago after accepting voluntary redundancy, and her case was backed by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

After her victory this week, an employment tribunal must now decide whether the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act is compatible with the European ruling but Mrs Coleman is likely to be entitled to compensation.

Campaigners want the legislation extended to cover all those who work as carers of the elderly and sick.

Ed Williams, a barrister at London law firm Cloisters, claimed the ruling also implied that employees should be protected against discrimination by association on grounds of religion, age or sexual orientation.

“An employee who is mocked for having an older partner, or a partner of a particular religion, or for their child’s sexuality, will now be protected,” he said.

Mrs Coleman’s claims are denied by her former employer and are yet to be decided upon by an employment tribunal.