Millions of workers could claim unlimited discrimination damages from their employers because of their association with people covered by equality law, legal experts warned after a landmark court ruling last week.
A European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision on the high-profile Sharon Coleman case opened the door for a rush of 'discrimination by association' claims.
Coleman claimed she was forced to quit her job at Attridge Law after she requested time off to look after her four-year-old disabled son. The ECJ ruled that able-bodied people can be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.
The Coleman case will have huge ramifications, not just for carers but for employees connected to people covered by other discrimination legislation, such as sexual orientation, religion and age.
Lisa Mayhew, employment partner at law firm Jones Day, said: "If an employee was married to a much older partner, and was subjected to jibes about this, then they should be protected under the age discrimination legislation.
"Similarly, if an employee was married to a Muslim and was harassed because of it, they would be protected by the UK's religious discrimination laws."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber urged employers to tighten up their discrimination and flexible working policies to make it clear that any behaviour, comments or jokes that anybody might find offensive is captured within the policy.
"Employers now need to look at their recruitment and other workplace policies to make sure they are not discriminating against staff who have disabled family members or friends," Barber said.
The Coleman case
Sharon Coleman claimed managers at Attridge Law called her ‘lazy’ when she requested time off to care for her disabled son.
She accepted voluntary redundancy, but later brought a claim for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination. A UK employment tribunal referred the case to the ECJ to clarify European law.
An advocate-general’s opinion earlier this year went in favour of Coleman, and now the ECJ has ruled in her favour. Her case will now go back to a UK tribunal.
In this clip, employment lawyer Selwyn Blyth, of Pinsent Masons, explains why the Coleman v Attridge case has important implications for managers handling flexible working requests.