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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 January 2008, 16:52 GMT
Hope for carers over Europe judgement
By Sue Littlemore
BBC News

A woman who claims she faced discrimination at work because she needed to look after her disabled son has won the latest round in her legal battle.

The judgement could signal ground-breaking changes for anyone who looks after sick, frail or disabled relatives.

In the UK, that means six million people.

Sharon Coleman claims she faced abuse at work as the mother of a disabled boy.

Office cultures and hostile attitudes from colleagues who frown upon carers who need to come in later or go home early might have to change

Her son Oliver was born with a condition which means he had breathing and hearing difficulties. But according to his mother, she was treated differently at work from parents whose children were not disabled.

Her former employers, Attridge Law Solicitors, deny that and point out that, to date, her claims have not been determined by a court.

But Ms Coleman alleges that while she was employed as a legal secretary, she was described as "lazy" and manipulative when she tried to take time off to care for her son.

She eventually took her case to an employment tribunal claiming constructive dismissal and disability discrimination.

The tribunal referred the case to the European Court of Justice and asked it to clarify whether laws which protect disabled and older workers from discrimination also extend to their carers.

Sharon Coleman
A senior lawyer found in favour of Ms Coleman

And that is what makes this case important for carers.

What the European court is considering is if it is illegal not only to discriminate against an employee because of their age or their disability, but also to discriminate against an employee because of their connection with someone who is disabled or older.

Britain's Race Relations Act provides a useful comparison. It is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race; but it is also illegal to discriminate against someone because of their association with someone of a particular race.

One of the senior lawyers at the European Court of Justice reached a conclusion in Sharon Coleman's favour.

His formal opinion is that laws designed to prevent age and disability discrimination also apply to workers who are not themselves disabled or ageing but do look after someone who is.

This is not the final decision of the European court but in most cases the opinion at this stage is echoed in the judges` final ruling.

New protection

Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission is delighted with this latest development.

It is the job of the Commission, which is headed by Trevor Phillips, to enforce the equality laws in the UK and it funded and supported Sharon Coleman's case.

The Commission is confident this heralds significant new employment rights and protection from discrimination for all carers.

It believes, if the conclusion of the court is confirmed, that employers in the UK will generally have to become more considerate and sensitive to carers' needs.

So how might practices change?

One example is that office cultures and hostile attitudes from colleagues who frown upon carers who need to come in later or go home early might have to change.

Carers who want to work from home might find employers more ready to arrange that, and many carers who have felt juggling the demands of paid work and caring were too much, might feel returning to employment becomes a real possibility.

Win for disability rights woman
31 Jan 08 |  London

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