The mother of a disabled child is today a step closer to a precedent setting legal victory that could herald new rights for Britain's six million carers.
The Advocate General (AG) of the European Court of Justice has said that treating employees less favourably because of their caring responsibilities for disabled relatives is unlawful. The AG stated that a European Directive regarding equal treatment in employment prohibits "disability discrimination by association" and should apply to British law. This could also mean carers of elderly relatives will have the same protection.
Sharon Coleman, whose son was born with a rare condition affecting his breathing and was also deaf, brought a case claiming she was forced to resign from her job as a legal secretary after, she claims, being harassed by her employers and refused flexible working. She believes she was specifically targeted because she has a child with a disability, and was denied the flexible work arrangements offered to her colleagues without disabled children.
Ms Coleman's case, which is being supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) jointly acting with solicitors Bates Wells and Braithwaite London LLP, was referred to the ECJ by an Employment Tribunal in order to determine if "disability discrimination by association" is unlawful.
The AG's opinion now needs to be ratified by the Court's judges who heard Ms Coleman's case, but it is highly likely they will follow the AG's lead.
Ms Coleman's victory will ensure that the UK's Disability Discrimination Act is interpreted to provide protection on the grounds of someone's association with and caring responsibilities for a family member with a disability. The ruling will also mean that those caring for elderly relatives are protected under age discrimination legislation.
Sharon Coleman said:
"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. It has taken a lot of courage to fight this case, but no-one should have to choose between caring for disabled relatives or their job. All I was ever asking for was an equal playing field."