Disability awareness “often the poor relation” at Bar and in courts

Henderson: Work with courts at a very early stage

The courts and the Bar need to do more to be accessible to disabled people, with their approach to disability lagging behind how they treat other protected characteristics, it has been argued.

Mark Henderson said he was fighting similar battles in the 2020s in relation to disability discrimination as he did in the mid-1990s for equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as adding sexual orientation to the Bar Council’s equality code.

Mr Henderson, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, became a full-time wheelchair user with a hearing impairment after sustaining an injury in 2018.

Writing for the Bar Council, he recalled: “My first appearance as an advocate post-accident [in 2019] was cancelled altogether by a broken wheelchair lift at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ). The fault was known but not publicised. This turned out to be a common theme.”

He continued: “Numerous rights that I had taken for granted now had to be fought for: the right to enter a court independently, to make submissions from an equivalent position to my opponent (if I was lucky enough to get into the court), the right to independent access to chambers, and to get between my room and an accessible toilet independently…

“Both the Bar and court system remain slow to recognise disability discrimination as on a par with other protected grounds.”

He argued that forms of societal ableism and “ableist tropes”, conscious and unconscious, were either inadequately understood, “or treated as something that could never happen at the Bar”.

He reported that the Bar Council’s disability panel – of which he is a member – has support from HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the Judicial Office to tackle access barriers in the courts, “but this work is in its early stages”.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments applied to chambers too. With more disabled pupils coming to the Bar, he continued, more chambers were appreciating the structural obstacles and systemic discrimination faced by disabled practitioners.

The upcoming pupillage gateway requires chambers for the first time to identify an accessibility officer as a single point of contact for access and reasonable adjustment queries, a move Mr Henderson welcomed.

But even in chambers that have done significant equality, diversity and inclusion work in other areas, “disability discrimination often remains the poor relation”.

“It is too easy to blame listed buildings for supposedly insurmountable access constraints and to publish the Bar Standards Board’s reasonable adjustment policy as if that is job done.”

Mr Henderson urged chambers and employers to use the government’s three-level Disability Confident scheme “to leverage real change”.

Some requirements reflected existing legal obligations but others went further in the higher levels, he explained, such as a guaranteed interview for disabled applicants.

“Like other requirements, its importance in increasing disabled representation in chambers derives both from its direct impact and from the wider message it sends to disabled people about chambers commitment to equality.”

Mr Henderson also sits on the RCJ accessibility project board and the Bar Standards Board disability taskforce, as well as being vice-chair of the Spinal Injuries Association.

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