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Lack of BSL Covid briefings – High Court challenge

18 June 2021

The government’s lack of sign language interpreters during Covid briefings has been challenged in the High Court. Katie Rowley from Leeds brought a judicial review against the Cabinet Office. The case was heard online on 16 June.

 

Katie, who is deaf, is arguing that that the government is breaching its obligations to make its broadcasts accessible to deaf people under the Equality Act and that the government breached its obligations under the public sector equality duty by not providing live on-platform British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation for its scientific briefings.

When the claim was issued, Katie was 25 weeks pregnant and particularly anxious to protect the life and health of her unborn son. British Sign Language is Katie’s first language, she cannot follow conversations or access spoken information without an interpreter. She is also visually impaired and dyslexic.

There was no BSL interpreter at the public briefings at all for the first two weeks of the pandemic, governing all the key announcements regarding suspension of schools, closure of public spaces, lockdown, shielding and furlough.

After a petition, and a letter from Katie’s solicitor, Chris Fry, on behalf of 16 different deaf peoples’ organisations, in March 2020 an ‘in screen’ interpreter could be seen when watching the BBC News Channel only. This interpreter was shown on screen but was not at the briefings in person.

Around April 2020, the Cabinet Office arranged for the ‘in screen’ interpreter to be broadcast on its social media channels through the Number 10 Twitter feed and YouTube channels. However, the ‘in screen’ option continued to fail.

Katie’s case is that an on-platform interpreter, who is in the room during the briefing, avoids any technical issues, ensures that a BSL interpreted version is universally available on any channel, and demonstrates an inclusive approach by the Government. Scotland and Wales both have on-platform interpreters for their broadcasts.

The Government argued that the case was academic because an in-vision feed was provided.

The Judge appeared to recognise that there was no evidence that an in-vision interpreter was a better option than an on-platform interpreter. The Government appeared to accept that an on-platform interpreter was a more inclusive solution. 

The decision of the court is reserved until a later date.

The #whereistheinterpreter campaign, led by Lynn Stewart-Taylor, has crowdfunded to pay for independent expert evidence and court fees relating to the case, and walked to Downing Street to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The Royal Association for Deaf People has been an active supporter of the campaign and provided evidence in the judicial review.

Solicitor Chris Fry is also representing around 350 deaf people in private law claims against the government regarding the lack of an interpreter for the first Covid briefings. These cases are on hold pending the outcome of Katie’s case.

Katie said: “The pandemic has been a very worrying time for everyone but to be pregnant and unable to understand the information coming from the government made it absolutely terrifying. Then, Government Covid briefings were essential for everyone to know what was going on and how to best keep safe – yet they were not accessible to the tens of thousands of people who have BSL as their first language. The late inclusion of an in-screen interpreter, which was then inconsistently available, is just not good enough.”

DR UK’s Head of Policy Fazilet Hadi said: “127,000 people use BSL in England. D/deaf people have been utterly failed during the pandemic in terms of their access to critical information. 25 years after the Disability Discrimination Act became law, it is ridiculous that cases like this still need to be brought to court because reasonable adjustments are not being made as standard.”

More details on the case can be found here and here.