Discrimination in access to events: is there a duty to provide live sign language interpretation at music concerts?

On Wednesday 15 September 21 the London Central County Court handed down a judgment with significant ramifications for deaf people’s access to music events. Judge Avent found that the organisers of a Little Mix concert in September 2017 discriminated against 3 deaf mothers by failing to provide BSL interpretation of the entirety of the concert, despite their specific requests for this adjustment to be made. Catherine Casserley acted for the claimants.

The facts

The claimants, three deaf mothers, wished to take their daughters to an open-air concert of Little Mix in September 2017, organised by the defendant, Live in the UK Limited. Having bought the tickets in June, they emailed the CEO of Live in the UK in July to ask what provision would be made for people with disabilities. They specifically pointed out their need for British Sign Language (‘BSL’) interpretation, as well as a place from which they could clearly see the stage, and a list of songs in the order in which they would be sung. They offered to signpost the defendant to BSL service providers if a BSL service had not yet been arranged.

The answer from Live in the UK was a resounding no. The claimants replied by pointing out the defendant’s obligations under the Equality Act 2010. They even put the defendant in touch with  Attitude Is Everything, a charity promoting deaf people’s access to live music, who offered support in making arrangements. Live in the UK merely offered 3 ‘carer tickets’ and space in the disabled viewing area, not without specifying that “these come at significant cost to us as promoters”.

After repeated requests, and 2 days before the concert, the claimants  issued a claim for injunctive relied in the County Court. On the same day, Live in the UK confirmed that a BSL interpreter had been booked. However, the interpreter had only been booked to provide interpretation for Little Mix. There was no interpreter for any of the announcements or for the two support acts.

The claim

The claimants brought claims  for, amongst other things,  failure to make reasonable adjustments contrary to s.29(2)(c) and in breach of s.20(5). It was heard by Judge Avent in July 2021. Live in the UK did not participate in the trial because it went into liquidation in August 2020, so its evidence was limited to witness statements which had been exchanged before liquidation.

Judge Avent found that the defendant had failed to make the reasonable adjustment of providing BSL interpretation for the entirety of the concert. The claimants received an injury to feelings award of £5,000 each.

The reasoning

The judge found that having a BSL interpreter at live music events was reasonable in general, and in the circumstances of the case, it was an adjustment that ought to have been made. The duty to make reasonable adjustments requires service providers to anticipate the needs of potential disabled customers. It was foreseeable that people with hearing loss would want to attend this concert, therefore BSL interpretation ought to have been planned. This was all the more so when one of the claimants, Ms Reynolds, emailed the defendant nearly 2 months prior to the concert, to ask about it.

The judge found that had the defendant anticipated the adjustment, it could have absorbed the cost of a BSL interpreter into the overall costs of the event. The cost was reasonable in any event: it would have amounted to less than 0.5% of the overall concert costs.

The defendant tried to argue that it had met its equality obligations by providing a BSL interpreter for the show of Little Mix, the artist whom the claimants had paid to see. Catherine Casserley, for the claimants, submitted that the tickets were not just for Little Mix but for the whole event. The judge agreed. As soon as the support acts were named, they became part of the event. Even if the claimants – like, perhaps, the rest of the audience – had not been interested in the support acts, they were entitled to an adjustment that would enable them, as far as possible, to approximate their experience to that of the other attendees.

Judge Avent went further, accepting the claimants’ evidence that deaf people are unlikely to be able to access concerts of this nature in a musical sense or appreciation, which means that lyrics and words take on a much greater importance for them, both in terms of the songs sung and the artists’ interaction with the audience.

The defendant tried to suggest that the claimants’ auxiliary aids and lipreading ability were sufficient to enable them to experience the concert. The judge found this position “naïve” and lacking “any understanding of the nature and extent of the disability of each claimant”. After having heard the evidence of an expert, Judge Avent found that auxiliary aids are of no use in concerts, and lipreading is only possible in specific circumstances (proximity to the speaker, good lighting conditions, nothing obstructing sight of the mouth, among other things). Even then, a large part of what is said would still be missed.

The judge also found that offering a ‘carer ticket’ so that the claimants could bring their own interpreter was not a reasonable adjustment, because only a professional interpreter could have dealt with the level of interpretation required, and this would involve a cost to the claimants, which goes against the statutory requirements (specifically, the Services, Public Functions and Associations: Statutory Code of Practice).

What this means for people with disabilities accessing live events

The judgment includes some important comments about access to live events for people without hearing. It states that “where concerts of this magnitude and size of being provided for a particular band, with or without support acts, for one night only at a specific geographic location, it seems to me generally speaking that the provision of a BSL interpreter will always be more than likely a reasonable adjustment to make or provide.” However, the judge refused to say anything about whether this would apply to festivals, which are different in nature to a single-stage music event.

This judgment is a significant win for the deaf community and people with disabilities in general. Service providers must anticipate the needs of people with disabilities who may wish to use their services, and make appropriate adjustments to provide access to a service as close as reasonably possible to that offered to the public at large, even if this involves additional costs. BSL interpretation will generally be an obvious adjustment at live events, even those of a musical nature.

Laurene Veale