EU has protected disabled Brits when UK law failed

by Joel Baccas | 07.03.2019

The EU has been critical in the fight against disability discrimination in this country. The area provides a great example of how vulnerable citizens can turn to the EU – and the European Court of Justice in particular – when domestic law fails to protect them.

An important case on disability rights which went to the ECJ is Coleman v Attridge Law. It concerned a mother who had become the primary caregiver to her disabled son suffering  from bronchomalacia and congenital laryngomalacia, which can block the airways and cause difficulty breathing.

She accepted voluntary redundancy and stopped working, but then brought a claim of constructive dismissal and disability discrimination against her employer. She argued that the employer had treated her less favourably than employees with non-disabled children after coming back from her maternity leave. This included being called “lazy” for seeking time off to care for her son; being refused flexible working when other employees were not refused; and being told she was using her “f***ing child” to influence her working conditions.

For her claim, she sought to rely on the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995 but the employer argued that the DDA only covered people who were actually disabled. Instead of accepting this she then turned to the EU’s Equal Treatment Directive, saying it covered employees who were treated favourably by their association with a disabled person. This was referred to the ECJ.

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The ECJ noted that one of the aims of EU law is to protect people’s dignity and the autonomy. This can be undermined when a person is discriminated against. And it was recognised that this discrimination doesn’t have to be directly at that person. There are subtler ways, such as targeting people associated with them – for example, the parent of a disabled child.

The Court concluded that EU law “protects people who, although not themselves disabled, suffer direct discrimination and/or harassment in the field of employment and occupation because they are associated with a disabled person”. She won.

After Brexit, UK nationals will lose their EU citizenship and the automatic rights and protections that come with it. That strips away a crucial layer of defence for the most vulnerable in our society, whom past cases have proven are not always protected under UK law alone. Disability rights is just one example. The EU also acts as a bulwark against discrimination on gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. It helps protect workers from unscrupulous employers, and citizens from an unhealthy environmental or unsafe food or other products.

Theresa May has promised that rights will not move backwards after Brexit. But her word is not enough. This pledge does not appear in the Withdrawal Agreement, a legally binding international treaty. It will be up to future parliaments to protect UK citizens’ rights – and we already have many leading Brexiters on the record as wanting to roll back such regulation.

Now we know more about Brexit, and the risk it poses to people’s future, it is only fair to put the final decision back to the people. And that is why I will be marching on Saturday March 23 in London, to demand we Put It To The People!

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “EU has protected disabled Brits when UK law failed”

  • How has it protected us from all these cuts, and tribunals since 2012?
    It certainly hasn’t helped anyone I know!