Discrimination 'by association' ruled unlawful

Employers may have to re-assess their equal opportunities polices following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that ‘discrimination by association’ is unlawful.

The ruling provides greater protection to Britain’s six million carers and will make it easier for them to request favourable arrangements such as flexible working.

The case involved legal secretary Sharon Coleman and her son Oliver who was born with a rare condition affecting his breathing and hearing. Ms Coleman claimed she was forced to resign because she was harassed by her employers and denied the right to work flexible hours even though such arrangements were available to other employees.

She took the case to an Employment Tribunal which referred the matter to the ECJ for a ruling on whether “disability discrimination by association” in unlawful. The court ruled in her favour saying that the EU Directive banning discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of disability did not only protect the disabled themselves, it also extended to those who care for the disabled. Ms Coleman’s case will go back to the Employment Tribunal for a hearing in the light of the new ruling.

The facts of Ms Coleman’s case have yet to be determined by the Tribunal but the ruling ensures that the law now provides protection on the grounds of someone’s association with a disabled person. It will also offer protection to those caring for elderly relatives.

The ruling also reaffirms existing law that prohibits discrimination by association in the workplace on the grounds of religious belief, age or sexual orientation.

There is no doubt that this is a hugely significant ruling. Employers should ensure their equal opportunities policies are up to date so that they do not discriminate against staff who act as carers for the disabled or the elderly. For example, if they offer flexible working to the mothers of young children then they may have to offer the same rights to an employee caring for a disabled or elderly relative.

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