The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to issue best-practice guidelines to solicitors and firms it regulates about being deaf aware, after new research showed that legal services were often inaccessible to people with hearing loss.
According to the research, people with hearing loss “often felt like they were in a battle to be understood by their legal adviser” and as a result can be vulnerable to being mistreated.
The survey of 49 people who are deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) was undertaken by the Deaf Studies Trust on behalf of the SRA, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). It is to be the first of a series looking at issues various vulnerable groups have in accessing legal services.
The research identified communication between the lawyer and deaf/HoH person as the “core issue”. It said: “For deaf people, it centres on lack of ‘deaf-friendliness’ of the contact and the perception that an interpreter is only engaged to help a deaf person, and not to facilitate the work of the lawyer.
“For hard of hearing people, it can be the lack of eye contact in order to aid lip-reading and the lack of awareness in finding a suitable location for interaction [such as well-lit meeting rooms]. In both cases, the deaf or hard of hearing client is rendered vulnerable by the perceived lack of empathy and problems with communication in the dealings with the lawyer.”
Other problems included inappropriate written material, poorly maintained loop systems (at both courts and firms) and insufficient preparation. “Deaf and hard of hearing people suffer no cognitive impairment as a result of their hearing loss but they are often made to feel dependent and ignorant by their own legal team because of insensitivity and lack of preparation,” it s
The research said it was hard to judge whether this all resulted in adverse outcomes for clients. “But there are certainly cases where the participants felt this, particularly where deaf people may be penalised or pressured by their lack of understanding of the legal process; and also where deaf people may be given incorrect treatment due to caricaturing of their supposed needs. Hard of hearing people may be better able to press for their rights due to better competence in reading and writing.”
As a result, the SRA is arranging readily-available advice for lawyers and law firms about best practice in providing services to consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing, while Action on Hearing Loss is leading the development of support information for consumers, in both written form and British Sign Language.
Another issue that arose in the research was the use of sign language interpreters. These are not always being supplied by lawyers when requested, and there is confusion on both sides over who should pick up the costs. The consumer panel has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to urge it to provide clarity on who should pay.
Panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: “Deaf and hard of hearing consumers often feel like they have to win a battle with their own advisor before they can succeed in legal action involving another party. Good communication is crucial in any advice setting, but this research shows lawyers must work harder to adjust to the needs of this consumer group.”
SRA chief executive Antony Townsend added: “The legal practitioners and firms we regulate have flexibility to tailor their services in ways that best fit the needs of individual consumers, and this flexibility can be used to great effect in accommodating the communication preferences of someone with hearing loss.
“The report highlights a gap in terms of easy-to-find best-practice advice for legal services providers when they are approached by new clients with hearing loss, and we are working with other organisations, including the Law Society, to fill this gap.”
See blog: Heard mentality (from August 2011)