The mother of a disabled boy won a crucial legal victory yesterday that could lead to new rights to flexible working for Britain’s six million carers.
Sharon Coleman, 41, says that she was forced to resign from her job as a legal secretary, working at a London law firm, in 2005 after her employers refused her the same flexible working hours as other staff.
Ms Coleman says that she was called “lazy” when she needed to take time off to care for her son Oliver, now 5, who suffers from a rare breathing condition and is deaf, and that she was threatened with disciplinary action. But yesterday the chief legal adviser to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that treating some employees less favourably than others because of their caring responsibilities for a disabled – or elderly – relative was unlawful.
The case will now go before the judges of the European Court of Justice for ratification. In 80 per cent of cases the court follows the Advocate-General’s opinion. A decision is expected by May.
At a press conference in London, Ms Coleman, who now works for a local authority, said: “The decision is brilliant. It is one step on the road but a very important step.”
She said that her treatment when working at the solicitors’ firm Attridge Law had left her “feeling absolutely horrendous” and “lying on the floor crying because I couldn’t both work and be a carer”.
Her claim was not about compensation but the principle, she added, although, if she is ultimately successful she would be in line for a payment. Colleagues with children who were not disabled were allowed to work “around their children but it was made very difficult for me”, she said.
She took a claim for constructive dismissal to an employment tribunal in London, which in turn referred the case to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on whether she was protected under equality laws. The key issue was whether the laws outlawing discrimination at work went beyond the protection of the disabled or elderly themselves to cover those who face discrimination because they are associated with a disabled or elderly person.
The European Court had heard that comments were made at Ms Coleman’s workplace, that her “f****** child” was “always f****** sick” and that she was using her son to manipulate her working conditions.
John Wadham, the legal director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission which is backing the case, said: “People want to work and need to work and should not be forced to choose between their jobs and their loved ones.”