Landmark test case could benefit millions of Britain’s carers

A landmark employment appeal decision has been hailed by Carers UK, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the Equal Opportunities Commission as having the potential to provide new protection for millions of Britain’s unpaid carers.

In a case jointly supported by the DRC and Bates, Wells & Braithwaite solicitors, Sharon Coleman won the right for an unfair treatment claim against her employer – due to the primary caring role she has for her disabled son – to proceed before the European Court of Justice later next year.

The case revolves around the interpretation of the EU’s equal treatment directive and its impact on UK disability discrimination legislation. The directive deals with equal treatment in employment and occupations and aims to combat discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Although she is not disabled, Ms Coleman’s lawyers contend that the directive protects her from unfair treatment which comes from her association with a disabled person. Associated discrimination is agreed by lawyers to be operative in cases of race and sexual orientation and the European Court of Justice’s decision would be the first time that disability discrimination will be considered to apply in these circumstances.

Ms Coleman, who worked as a legal secretary for a firm of London solicitors, claims she was subjected to unfair treatment by her employers. For example, she claims that she was criticised and described as ‘lazy’ when she wanted to take time off to provide care, and that on occasions when she was late for work because of problems with care provision, she was told that she would be sacked. Ms Coleman claims that these actions created a hostile atmosphere which forced her to resign in March 2005.

Currently 6 million people provide unpaid care in Britain, most of them women. Over a third of carers who provide 50 hours support or more per week have never worked or are currently unemployed.

Commenting on the decision of the employment appeal tribunal, Imelda Redmond, Chief Executive of Carers UK, said:

“This case could have profound implications for the 1 in 5 carers who are forced to give up work. We know that many carers need and want to combine paid work with their caring role, and accommodating this need not be difficult, disruptive or expensive for businesses.”

Commenting on the decision of the employment appeal tribunal, Agnes Fletcher, Assistant Director of Communications at the DRC said:

“This case could have a major impact on the employment prospects of the 6 million people who provide unpaid care. Many of them have never been able to work. Others have struggled to balance work and caring responsibilities to the detriment of family life. Without providing protection from discrimination for carers and without family and employment policies that enable flexible working, many more British families will reach breaking point. The British economy needs those who provide care for disabled people to work, so that they can provide a decent income for their families and make provision for their pensions. Fairness at work for all employees benefits all of us.”