EU court rules obesity can be a disability


The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that obesity can be classified as a disability in certain circumstances. The case originated in Denmark, where a child-minder was allegedly dismissed for being ‘too fat’, resulting in a Danish court referring the case to the ECJ to determine whether obesity was a disability.

The ECJ ruled that Obesity in itself is not a disability, but if a person has long term impairment resulting from obesity, then this could fall within the definition of a disability.

At present, the definition of a disability is set out in the Equality Act 2010 section 6 which states:

A person (P) has a disability if:

  • P has a physical or mental impairment, and
  • The impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities

The definition of long-term is taken to be 12 months or longer.

Arguably the ruling does not actually change UK law, but merely clarifies the current status of disability. The case does give employers a degree of certainty as to whether they will be discriminating against employees if they dismiss them for reasons connected to obesity.

Interestingly the ECJ failed to define the word obese, although a preliminary ruling had suggested that those with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40 might be considered disabled. The World Health Organisation’s definition of obsess as a BMI of 30 could also be used; however this would include almost a quarter of the UK adult population. Defining what is and what is not obese is a grey area, and I wouldn’t expect employers to begin measuring employees’ BMI on an annual basis. As such, more clarification on this issue might be required in the future.

My advice for employers would be to remain mindful of the ruling and take it as a reminder that they could potentially be discriminating against an employee if they dismiss them for a reason connected to their obesity. It is a good enough reason to dust off your contracts and policies and perhaps make a few necessary additions.

If any of the issues raised in this article affect your business, please give us a call to discuss your options. We are happy to advise and find a solution that works for you and your business: 0800 912 7152