Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
One of the many things I like about specialising in the law is the sheer variety of topics there are to cover. It is, of course, a natural consequence of the all-pervasive nature of the law. So it’s not all ABSs and Jackson in my life – space law was a fun one, football and law is a perennial favourite for personal reasons, and in the last week I have been learning about the severe problems deaf people have in accessing legal services. (For these purposes I use the term deaf to encompass the nearly 10m people out there with hearing problems of greater or lesser severity.)
Prompted by my story about Joseph Frasier Solicitors aiming to become the first “deaf law firm”, I looked into the subject more deeply for my weekly Guardian Law blog. As you will see, it is not a pretty picture.
The good news is that there are, according to Emma Harrison, director of public engagement at Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), pockets of good practice in the profession. Another emerged last week – serious injury firm Fentons has become the first law firm to engage deaf awareness training company DeafWise, which will be training all 250 members of staff, including partners.
It is now a case for pulling out this good practice for all to see. The Legal Services Consumer Panel – of which Ms Harrison is a member – is going to try doing this by choosing the deaf as the first subject of a series of studies into how specific groups of consumers experience legal services, with a focus on those who are at risk of disadvantage.
The study will examine three themes: what circumstances contribute to deaf people being vulnerable; whether the needs of the deaf are being met; and if not, what practical steps could be taken by the profession and regulators to improve the situation. The project will involve intelligence-gathering from literature and representative organisations, interviews with key stakeholders and consumer research.
Various things have troubled me about what I have learned (and I can’t pretend my research has been amazingly in-depth or that, as a person with no hearing problems, I have given this much thought until now). First have been the stories of problems deaf people have encountered with all aspects of the legal system, including law firms.
Aside from the decency one would hope solicitors would show people with a disability like this, many seem to be ignoring their legal duty under the Equality Act to adapt their services to cater for the needs of people with hearing loss. The panel explains that the duty is to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that a disabled person can use a service as close as it is reasonably possible to the standard usually offered to non-disabled people. When the duty arises, providers are under a positive and proactive duty to take steps to remove or prevent these obstacles.
Second is the commercial opportunity that lawyers are overlooking. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in making a profit from a service that deaf people value, although as Saimina Virmanji from Joseph Frasier says, it needs to come from the starting point of wanting to do the right thing in the right way, rather than as a marketing gimmick. Emma Harrison points out that with the population getting older, the number of those with hearing problems is only going to increase. Most lawyers don’t think about the “mass market” this represents, she says.
It is frankly astonishing that RAD Legal Services – part of the Royal Association for Deaf People – appears to be the only dedicated legal resource for deaf people. It clearly does a fantastic job (a money advice service is its latest initiative), but there is only so much that four people can do.
Finally is the issue of deaf lawyers themselves, like solicitor Rob Wilks, head of RAD Legal Services. Some 150 rejection letters later, he has personal experience of the difficulties of finding a training contract or a job in private practice, and says the deaf solicitors he knows work either in the charity sector or in local government. “I’ve not come across one who works in private practice.” I wonder if any work at the 200 law firms signed up to the Law Society’s much trumpeted equality and diversity charter.
It is all too easy to be holier than thou from the keyboard and so I shall stop there. But the past week has, I hope, made a lasting impression on me.