The Court of Appeal has given judgment in a case which provides helpful clarification regarding the limits of the law on making reasonable adjustments for workers.

Mrs Hainsworth was a civilian employee of the British armed forces, based in Germany. She was not disabled, but her daughter has Down's syndrome. Mrs Hainsworth requested a transfer to the UK so that her daughter could attend specialist education and training facilities. Her request was refused. She brought a claim alleging that this refusal amounted to a breach of her employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments.

The question for consideration was whether the duty to make reasonable adjustments extended to disabled persons associated with the employee. The court rejected Mrs Hainsworth’s appeal. It said the underlying EU law was clear on this point. Its provisions only applied to reasonable adjustments for the assistance of disabled employees or prospective employees. So it concluded that any attempt to stretch this to cover a disabled person associated with an employee was "doomed to failure".

While this decision is welcome in setting a clear limit to an employer’s duties to make adjustments, other employment rights could be engaged in similar circumstances. For example Mrs Hainsworth’s employer would have had a duty to consider a flexible working request. She may also have been able to challenge a refusal to transfer her by claiming that amounted to indirect discrimination on grounds of her sex, given that caring responsibilities tend to fall more heavily on women.

Finally, if Mrs Hainsworth had been able to show that her application for a transfer was treated unfavourably when compared to other transfer requests because it was to accommodate the needs of a disabled dependant, then she might have been able to bring a claim for direct disability discrimination. The definition of direct discrimination (unlike the duty to make adjustments) is broad enough to cover associative discrimination – ie less favourable treatment because of the claimant’s association with a person having the relevant protected characteristic.