Catherine Casserley in signal victory for deaf people over Prime Minister’s Covid 19 briefings

The Cabinet Office discriminated against Katie Rowley by failing to make reasonable adjustments (in breach of s.20(5)) in respect of the absence of British sign language interpreters for the Covid 19 television briefings held on 21 September 2020 and 12 October 2020. Catherine Casserley represented Ms Rowley against the Cabinet Office Rowley CO 4740 2021 Fordham J approved judgment for 28.7.21 In a significant judgment by Fordham J the Cabinet office was found to have failed to have provided BSL interpreter’s for the PM’s Briefings at a crucial time in the Pandemic meaning that vital information was delayed for these people. The judge rejected the Cabinet Office’s defence that Deaf people were not at a substantial disadvantage in not having an interpreter because (e.g.) they had subtitles and there was other information available in the form of ministerial briefings.

The Government was found guilty of prejudice in relation to its reliance upon the provision of subtitles.  The judge said:  “The idea that ‘subtitles are an answer’ amounts to “a stereotypical opinion or feeling about individuals who share a protected characteristic … formed without proper knowledge of people with that protected characteristic” and thus constitutes “prejudice”.

The judge said that “messages of alarm or reassurance about being in this together” and acting responsibly “required inclusion and accessibility”. He pointed out that there “was a clear barrier for a vulnerable and marginalised groups, undermining accessibility of information. The message [to them] was blocked or scrambled or delayed. The barrier to information in an accessible format arose by reason of disability. The  lack of provision – the provision of subtitles only – was a failure of inclusion, suggestive of not being thought about, which served to disempower, to frustrate and to marginalize. The immediate experience was of important urgent messaging being delivered to the public, known to be being provided, but with an inability to access or understand it. The substantial foreseeable and palpable effect would be an exclusion, and a justified sense of grievance…..”

The court also found that an on platform BSL interpreter, as opposed to an invision interpreter, would be the reasonable adjustment most consistent with the legislative policy of the reasonable adjustment duty, though it found that the government was not presently in breach of this duty by not providing one given the reliance upon data slides as part of its briefings.

The judge has sent the case to the County Court so that Ms Rowley’s damages can now be assessed.

Since the case was heard the government has announced in its Disability Strategy, coincidentally published yesterday, that “Lessons learnt from COVID-19 communications will inform future communication strategies and campaigns.”  It is to be hoped that this will include ensuring that announcements are made immediately accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. It adds, in a bullet point whose lay out suggests it was added very recently, that one of the things it will do is “identify and seek collaborative ways to co-create communications and continue sharing accessible formats”.  Amidst other criticisms of the Disability Strategy, it appears that perhaps some lessons will be learned by the Cabinet Office as a result of this case.