The Court of Appeal has dismissed an argument that EU anti-discrimination law can impose a duty on employers to make adjustments for employees who are not disabled themselves, but who have disabled dependents.

The claimant was employed by the Ministry of Defence. She was stationed at a base in Germany where there were no appropriate facilities to educate her daughter, who had Down’s Syndrome. She argued that under the EU Discrimination Framework Directive, her employer had a duty to consider transferring her back to the UK so that her daughter could receive a suitable education.

The well-known case Coleman v Attridge Law established that the scope of the Directive is broad enough to cover direct discrimination against workers because of their association with disabled people. The claimant’s legal team suggested that this principle should be extended to cover other forms of disability discrimination.

The Court of Appeal has decided that this would be a bridge too far. In its view it was clear that the “reasonable accommodation” provisions in the Directive were limited to disabled employees or prospective employees. Any other interpretation would make these provisions “hopelessly uncertain”. It follows that the Equality Act correctly translates the “reasonable accommodation” obligation into a duty to make reasonable adjustments which is explicitly confined to workers or prospective workers with a disability.

This does not mean that an employer has no obligations at all towards a worker who wishes to change his or her working arrangements to accommodate the educational or other needs of disabled dependents. Even under the present flexible working regime, the claimant would arguably have had a right to request a change to her working arrangements on the basis that caring for a disabled child extended to making suitable arrangements for her education. As from 30 June the extension of the right to all employees will put the matter beyond doubt. On the other hand an employer’s obligations to respond to such requests are quite limited, at least in comparison with the duty to make adjustments.