Disability discrimination – law firms not getting it right

Clients with hearing impairments neglected by law firms according to solicitors in London

A law firm’s duty to its clients

By the very nature of their work law firms deal with all sorts of clients in the course of their every-day practice. Each client comes with their own individual needs which a firm should try to satisfy but some clients require a special level of treatment. In particular, when dealing with clients who have learning difficulties, disabilities, visual impairments or language difficulties firms should adapt their approach to cater for their specific needs. Failing to do so means that those groups receive less of a service than other clients and could result in discrimination claims being brought against firms.

One group feeling under-cared for

The level of service provided to customers, including how individual needs are met, is monitored by consumer watchdogs. Recently the service provided to clients who are deaf or hard of hearing by law firms has been criticized. Consumer watchdogs have warned law firms that unless their service improves to these vulnerable groups of clients they may face a plethora of clams for discrimination.

The problems faced by the hearing impaired

In Britain alone there are over 10 million people who suffer from problems with their hearing. The problems range from minor impairments all the way to complete deafness, but for each individual their problem makes tasks like seeking legal advice just that bit harder. Many claims from the hearing impaired relate to welfare benefits, employment or discrimination in relation to the supply of goods and services. In order to be represented throughout the life of a claim a client must feel that their legal advisor understands their case and all the background information.

Communication between client and lawyer is of utmost importance and without it the client may feel like no one is on their side and they have not received proper representation. According to nearly 2000 complaints received by the Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD) in the last 5 years clients with hearing impairments are feeling that this first stage of the process is not happening and law firms are not preparing and adapting their methods to promote fruitful and effective communication with them. This has led the hearing impaired to feel isolated and vulnerable and to see their lawyers as adversaries rather than on their side.

What law firms need to do

It seems unlikely that the barriers to communication are the result of any intended malice or resentment toward the hearing impaired. It seems that the problem stems more from a lack of awareness of the specific needs and requirements of this group of clients. As a result of this exposure of failing to cater for the needs of the hearing impaired two initiatives are to be launched to help raise awareness.

Firstly, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to release best-practice guidelines, with online training elements and videos , in order to deal with:

  • Services available to interpret
  • The differences in how the law applies
  • Different ways to effectively communicate

It is hoped that raised awareness will eradicate the current problems deaf people face in law firms such as failures to adapt materials, non-functional loop systems, failures to provide or pay for sign-language interpreters even when requested and inadequate lighting in conference rooms.

Secondly, the RAD is to release a charter which law firms will be able to sign up to. This will follow training programmes as part of lawyers’ Continuing Professional Development, providing education and awareness in dealing with deaf clients. The RAD hope to create a minimum standard which is adhered to nationwide in the provision of legal services to the deaf and hard of hearing.

Will firms react?

Whether it is through these schemes or off their own back law firms need to clean up their act if they are to avoid discrimination claims and remain competitive in the current economic climate where reputation is everything.

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