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Background to the Coleman case

31 January 2008

Find out the background to the landmark case which could lead to new rights for millions of carers.


What was the case about?

Sharon Coleman worked as a legal secretary for a law firm. She left her job and took her employer to court for constructive dismissal claiming she had suffered disability discrimination because she had a disabled son. This is termed 'discrimination by association'.

Why did she feel she had to leave her job and take legal action?

When her son was born disabled she felt her employers began to treat her differently. When she asked for time off to deal with her caring responsibilities she was described as 'lazy' . She said she was not allowed as much flexibility as parents of other children. She said her manager had commented that her child was always sick, and had accused her of trying to use his condition to get out of work. Eventually she felt she had no choice but to resign and bring a case under Disability discrimination laws to say that she had been discriminated against because her son is disabled .

What has she said about her treatment?

Sharon Coleman described her situation in an interview with the BBC :

"I was upset and shocked at the attitude of my former employers. They knew about my son's problems because I took him into the office, but they wouldn't allow me to work flexibly to make it easier to look after him. Other members of staff were taking time off for hospital appointments or worked from home but my requests were always turned down. When they heard that my son had a serious illness, they didn't expect me to return to work."

Why is it in the European courts?

Under UK law, disability discrimination laws apply only to the disabled person themselves. The employment tribunal in London which heard Sharon's case decided to refer the case to Europe because the European Union's Equal Treatment Directive interprets disability discrimination more widely than the UK. Under the Directive it was arguable that the person who suffers the discrimination does not have to suffer from the disability themselves but could be the parent or spouse of a disabled person. The tribunal sought guidance on how they should apply the law before they considered the facts of Sharon Coleman's case.



What has this judgement said?

An Advocate-General, the most senior law officer of the European Court of Justice, has now agreed that the Equal Treatment Directive makes "discrimination by association" unlawful in the same way as discrimination against the disabled person themselves. This statement of a legal principle is an important landmark in the case but it is not yet the final decision.

A panel of European judges will make a final ruling on the issue later this year, though it is relatively rare for them to disagree with the Advocate-General's advice (in about 80% of European Court of Justice cases, the judges back the Advocate-General's opinion). Only after this stage will the Employment Tribunal in London consider the particular facts of Sharon Coleman's case.

Does this mean UK discrimination law is now different?

Not yet, but the case will have huge implications for carers in the UK if the European Court of Justice follows the Advocate General's advice.


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