Carers’ Rights Ruling leaves firms exposed to Discrimination Claims

A landmark EU court ruling which backed a UK employee’s right to take time off work to look after her disabled son could leave employers exposed to a rush of discrimination claims, legal experts have warned.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg agreed that Sharon Coleman suffered ‘discrimination by association’ when she was forced to resign from her job after being denied flexible working arrangements to look after her disabled child.

Crucially, judges ruled that an EU Directive which outlaws discrimination at work on grounds of disability, is not limited to disabled people themselves but also extends to those caring for them.

According to employment law firm Croner Consulting, the ruling could open the doors for a rush of similar associative discrimination claims from workers, as well as fresh demands for flexible working from those with caring responsibilities – estimated to be as many as one in seven employees in the UK.

Croner Consulting technical employment consultant Gillian Dowling said;

“This new ruling undoubtedly widens the possibility of more claims being made,”

“Employers are now going to have to think very carefully about the reasons for a flexible working request and although it may not appear, on the face of it, to be discriminatory to refuse, they may end up facing a claim if they have not properly thought the request through. For smaller firms, which are likely to be more familiar with their employees and their individual circumstances, it may be less of an issue. But if in any doubt, employers should take professional advice,” she added.

James Warren, employment partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, said that employers must ensure their workplace policies are fully up to date to avoid potentially costly litigation. He said;

“Employers really do need to consider their arrangements,” he said. “Now is the time to update equal opportunities polices, flexible working processes and training, to ensure that all eventualities are covered.”

Under rules introduced in April 2007, carers of sick or elderly relatives have the same right to request flexible working as parents of young children and children with disabilities – but employers are under no obligation to agree to time off if there is a good business reason not to.

For more information on carers’ right to request flexible working, visit the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory reform website.

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