Consumer Watchdogs have said that law firms could face unlimited discrimination claims from deaf and hard of hearing people if they continue failing to make ‘reasonable adjustments’. Britain has over 10 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Many deaf clients feel that law firms are not prepared and are not considerate of their special needs. During the first seven months of 2011 – 2012 the Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD) law centre received 429 complaints.
In 2011 two of Hartnell Chanot’s lawyers, Donna Hart and Gemma Sparks, completed the British Sign Language (BSL) Level 1 course. They can now welcome a client by greeting them and asking them basic questions in sign language, which they hope will help put the client at ease. Seeing a solicitor for the first time can be stressful, particularly in family matters so it is important that the client feels welcomed from the moment they enter the door.
Mounting concerns over discrimination have led to the announcement within the last month of two separate initiatives by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD) to improve ‘deaf awareness’.
According to the report “Legal Choices – Silent Process” published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and Action on Hearing Loss, deaf clients find that legal materials are not adapted for their needs and that there are barriers to communication.
The report referred to a case where a deaf client was engaged in a family matter. The client felt that the proceedings were not explained to her and her requests for an interpreter were ignored. Meetings were carried out by exchanging notes. In total the client went through at least six solicitors and felt very frustrated at the lack of adjustment to the needs of deaf clients.
Donna Hart, Associate Chartered Legal Executive comments: “It is not hard to believe that deaf clients feel discriminated in this way. When Gemma and I attended our first BSL course at the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education we were surprised at how different communication between deaf and hard of hearing people can be. Our initial part of learning was just explaining the basics, such as good eye contact, ensuring you have the person’s attention before speaking, staying in their field of vision, ensuring the room is well lit and your face is not covered, talking in a normal voice and tone, not covering your mouth when speaking and using gestures and visual clues, pointing at anything which may assist you. Above all we were taught to be polite. These things may sound obvious but it is amazing how many people do not know this or think to do it.”
She adds: “Whilst Gemma and I still need the assistance of interpreters at meetings and court we feel it is important that we can welcome a client that is hard of hearing and make them feel at ease. I am hoping to undertake Level 2 of BSL from September 2012 to improve my sign language skills and take them to the next level.”