Human Rights and Equality Commission Welcomes Significant High Court Ruling in Disability Rights and Employment Case

 High Court Points to “Paradigm Shift” in the Way Disability is Viewed in Irish Workplaces

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (the “Commission”) has welcomed as “significant” today’s High Court judgment in a case examining the rights of persons with disabilities to have reasonable workplace accommodations made to facilitate their work.

The case looked at whether the Irish Prison Service (IPS) must provide reasonable accommodation to prison officers with disabilities. In its judgment today in the Cunningham v. Irish Prison Service (IPS) appeal, the High Court held that the Labour Court was wrong in law to find that the IPS had a blanket exemption in relation to providing reasonable accommodation to its staff under Irish equality law.

This High Court ruling comes less than a year after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Marie Daly, a Special Needs Assistant (‘SNA’), who had worked at the Nano Nagle School for children. That case marked a paradigm shift in the way in which disability discrimination is dealt with in Ireland. It marked the move away from the narrow medical model of disability, where the disabled person is the problem and has to adapt to the workplace, toward the social model which underpins the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and EU law, and which frames the workplace (or physical environment) as the disability, which must be adapted to the worker.

Today’s judgment again recognises and reaffirms this important shift toward the social model of disability and the need to interpret the Employment Equality Acts (EEA) in light of EU law and the UNCRPD, which at their core recognise the dignity of persons with disability and that, as stated in today’s judgment, “fundamental to their dignity is the right to work”.

The Commission provided legal representation to Mr. Cunningham in challenging the Labour Court’s previous ruling, specifically whether the Labour Court’s decision was in line with Irish law, EU Anti- Discrimination Law, and Ireland’s obligations under the UNCRPD.

Having been successful in his 2017 WRC case against discrimination on the ground of disability, the Labour Court in 2018 overturned the WRC’s award, and found that the section 37(3) of the EEA served as a blanket exemption to the Prison Service from providing employees with disabilities any form of reasonable accommodation related to disability.

The Commission, as Ireland’s National Equality Body backed Mr. Cunningham in appealing that decision to the High Court, due to the significance of the matter for the interpretation of Ireland’s employment equality law and how it impacts people with disabilities in employment, specifically those working in emergency services, for example the Prison Service and the An Garda Síochána.

The Commission in its legal submissions argued that there is no blanket exemption to Prison Services in respect of providing reasonable accommodation, either under domestic or, EU law. The Commission argued that although there may be certain circumstances (i.e. a genuine occupational requirement) that permit the IPS to refuse to provide reasonable accommodation, the IPS must first prove, on a case-by-case basis on the evidence, each of the following as a 3-part test:

  • It constitutes a genuine and determining occupational requirement;
  • the objective is legitimate;
  • the requirement is proportionate.

Dr. Frank Conaty, Acting Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission stated:

“Today’s High Court ruling marks another clear statement from Ireland’s superior courts that people with disabilities have the right to work on equal terms. Mr. Justice Barr explicitly recognises that there has been a ‘paradigm shift’ in how people with disabilities must be treated in relation to employment in Ireland.

This ruling clarifies that where Irish Equality Law provides for limited exemptions, such as in respect to emergency services, that these exemptions must be read narrowly and interpreted to ensure compliance with Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“Access to work is an essential part of the human dignity of people with disabilities, and their participation in our society. This ruling is a positive and important step in safeguarding and promoting the realisation of the right to work, including for those who acquire a disability during the course of employment.”


For further information, please contact:

Brian Dawson, IHREC Communications Manager,

01 8589601 / 087 0697095

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Editor’s Note

The Commission’s written submissions to the High Court are available at the link below:

Legal Submissions in the Cunningham v Irish Prison Service High Court Case

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent public body, appointed by the President and directly accountable to the Oireachtas. The Commission has a statutory remit set out under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 to protect and promote human rights and equality in Ireland, and build a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding in the State.

The Commission is Ireland’s national human rights institution and is recognised as such by the United Nations. It is also Ireland’s national equality body for the purpose of a range of EU anti-discrimination measures.

Under its legal functions set out in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, the Commission can, in certain circumstances, provide legal assistance to a person who wishes to bring a matter of human rights or equality of treatment before the Courts or the Workplace Relations Commission.

Assistance under Section 40 of the Act means any or all of the following

  1. the provision, or the arranging for the provision of, legal advice to the applicant;
  2. the provision, or the arranging for the provision of, legal representation to the applicant
  3. the provision of such other assistance to the applicant as the Commission deems appropriate in the circumstances;