1.1 Who should read this practice note?
All solicitors who meet or speak to clients.
1.2 What is the issue?
D/deaf and hard of hearing people can have specific requirements when they use legal services that depend on their personal circumstances, and on the style of communication they prefer. They may also describe their ability to hear and identify themselves differently.
Important distinctions between 'Deaf', 'deaf' and 'hard of hearing' are set out in the terminology section.
In 2011 the SRA commissioned a research project to interview D/deaf and hard of hearing people across England and Wales, and to ask first-hand what they wanted from their solicitor or their law firm to help them get the best from legal services.
This practice note specifically focuses on different ways that you can work with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and offers some practical advice in this area.
2 Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 provides a legislative framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all.
Solicitors have duties as service providers and employers under the act. Our Equality Act 2010 practice note sets out these duties and aims to provide you, and all staff concerned with the management and day-to-day running of your practice, with an understanding of your duties towards staff and clients under the act.
Non-statutory guidance has been produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is intended to assist employers and service providers in understanding and complying with the act.
3 Meeting the needs of D/deaf and hard of hearing clients
3.1 Preparing to meet a prospective D/deaf or hard of hearing client for the first time
Before me eting a prospective client you should identify any specific equipment or support needed to help communication during the meeting. The client will be able to let you know exactly what is needed on the day. For a D/deaf person this might be a third-party who attends the meeting with you both. For example, this could include:
- a British Sign Language (BSL)/English interpreter(who supports communication between a Deaf BSL user and hearing people)
- a speech to text reporter or palantypist(who types a word-for-word account of what is being said that then appears in real-time on a screen for the client to read)
- a lipspeaker(who repeats clearly what is being said without using their voice, but using facial expressions and gestures to aid the communication)
- a notetaker(who types or writes down a summary of what is being said that can then be displayed to the client at a certain point in the process)
The room that you arrange for the meeting should be well-lit so that the person you are meeting can see your face clearly, along with any communication support arrangements that are also in the room.
You should also ensure the chosen meeting space has a minimum of background noise as this can be a significant barrier for clients who are D/deaf or hard of hearing. Note that some hearing aids amplify background sounds that will appear unobtrusive to people who are not hearing aid users. Air conditioning and cooling fans in PCs can have this effect.
3.2 Arranging communication support
In some cases a D/deaf or hard of hearing client will be happy to provide the support needed for you to communicate effectively with them. For example, someone who is hard of hearing may want to use their hearing aid, or bring along a friend or relative for support.
In other cases they may request a specific type of equipment.
A loop system can be used which converts sound into a signal that is then transmitted to the loop setting on someone's hearing aid or their listening device, and converted back into sound. For some hearing aid users, inductive loop or infrared systems do not assist.
Also be aware that straining to understand speech can be tiring and at times stressful and may take up much of the concentration of the D/deaf or hard of hearing client. Consider taking breaks in the course of the discussion.
Some offices already have loop systems installed (or sometimes infrared systems that perform the same function), and the equipment can also be hired temporarily.
3.3 How is communication support paid for?
If you need to provide communication support before a face-to-face meeting you should consider how the person will be funding their legal services.
- If the legal services will be funded via legal aid, the Legal Services Commission covers reasonable costs of providing support such as BSL interpretation, speech to text reporters and lipspeakers.
- If the legal services are being funded privately by the person you should identify estimated costs for the support or equipment, and if your firm is unable to absorb all of these you should inform the person of the likely costs up-front.
- In doing this you must consider the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, and specifically outcome (2.3) in the SRA Code of Conduct which states that your practice must be aware of its legal obligations to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for disabled clients, employees or managers.
- Please see our practice note on SRA Handbook Equality and Diversity requirements which provides some examples on making reasonable adjustments.
- Making a reasonable adjustment for someone who is D/deaf or hard of hearing benefits you as a legal services provider as much as the client. With the right adjustment in place and working well they can become more independent and able to participate more fully in the legal services process; the legal services provider meanwhile can build a more accurate picture of that individual's requirements and legal needs to make sure the best outcomes are provided to them.
3.4 How else you can aid communication
As well as making sure the necessary equipment and communication support is available, you may wish to consider the following:
- Always ask the D/deaf or hard of hearing person how you can best communicate at the start of the meeting. This may differ from person to person but will usually include you, during the meeting, speaking clearly, at a moderate pace and maintaining good eye contact. It may also include you paying attention to annunciating your words carefully. If something is not understood, despite repetition, consider saying the same thing using different words or writing it down.
- During the meeting, speak clearly, at a moderate pace and maintain good eye contact.
- If you have a reception or a waiting area at your firm, make sure the person responsible for this area is also aware of any communication needs for the client.
- Use plain English and explain any legal terms. The SRA research study found that D/deaf people in particular may have lower levels of literacy than hearing people, and around 50 per cent of young D/deaf people are unable to read.
- If your office is fitted with a loop system and it will be required, make sure it has been switched on and tested before the meeting.
- Explain clearly from the start what your role is as their legal adviser. The SRA research study found that D/deaf people in particular can face a lack of opportunity to discuss legal matters and you should not assume that they will automatically understand the legal process.
- If possible, allow additional time during your meeting to make sure that the communication process is not rushed and that your client has been able to make themselves understood.
- If your client uses British Sign Language (BSL) you can help explain the legal services process to them by using resources such as video clips in BSL from organisations like Action on Hearing Loss.
3.5 Other ways of communicating
For some legal services you may not need to meet your client face-to-face and instead will communicate via telephone or email.
If you provide your clients with a formal client care letter through the post, you should consider explaining the key aspects of this in other ways to a D/deaf and hard of hearing clients to make sure they have all of the information that they need.
Some D/deaf and hard of hearing people may prefer to use textphones (sometimes referred to using the brand name Minicom), where a small display screen and a keyboard are used to relay a conversation. If your office does not have a textphone available but you wish to contact a client who has one you could use a text relay service to make this possible.
You can find information on text relay services online by visiting websites such as Text Relay and Reach112.
If the client has a mobile phone, you could also consider using SMS text messages to provide important information. Sign language communication may also be possible through a videophone or a video link (through an internet site for example) although lipreading may be difficult due to the picture quality.
Using email is just as acceptable for D/deaf and hard of hearing people as it is for hearing people but it is important to bear in mind that some D/deaf people will have lower levels of literacy. Some email users may also have access to instant messaging software that allows communication to take place quickly.
The key is finding a suitable communication approach for each individual based on what they feel most comfortable with and able to do.
4 Supporting a D/deaf or hard of hearing client through the court
If your client's case reaches court, you will usually find that any communication support they require will be made available by the court in question, in the same way that spoken langauge interpeting requirements are provided.
However, the SRA research study showed that there are some practical steps you can take to help clients who are D/deaf or hard of hearing to navigate the court system.
You should explain before the court appearance using one of their preferred methods of communication:
- what will happen
- who will be there
- the layout of the court, and
- the likely timetable for the proceedings.
You should also inform the court as far in advance as possible about the communication requirements for your client. In particular you should inform them
- any regional or local dialect requirements if a BSL interpreter is to be used (see section above) and confirm to the court which interpreter(s) have already been used as part of the legal services process.
- any need to approach the client face-to-face to notify them when they are needed in the court room, rather than calling their name in the waiting room.
5 Further inforamation
5.1 Law Society practice notes
5.2 Equality and Diversity Section
An equality and diversity network specifically for legal practices in England and Wales. It offers essential support for practices that recognise the business imperative to become diverse and accessible.
5.3 Other organisations
There are a number of organisations that can provide information and services including deaf awareness training, accessibility advice and BSL/English interpreters.
Action On Hearing Loss - new name for the RNID
British Deaf Association
Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD) administers the Deaf Law Quality Mark to practices that offer accessible high quality legal services to Deaf people and maintains a register of accredited practices. It also operates the RAD Deaf Law Centre which provides free legal advice to Deaf clients in British Sign Language via webcam and centres in Newport and London.