The Cabinet Office’s lack of British Sign Language interpreters during Covid briefings is being challenged today in the High Court. Katie Rowley, 36, from Leeds, is bringing a judicial review against the Cabinet Office. The case will be heard by MS Teams on Wednesday 16 June from 10.30 am. Catherine Casserley, Barrister at Cloisters Chambers is instructed for Fry Law.
Katie, who is profoundly deaf, will argue in her case 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 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 You Tube 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 Cabinet Office is expected to argue that it complied with its duties by making an arrangement with the BBC to provide an interpreter, arranging a live feed, providing subtitles and providing written information online after the briefings.
Katies has had huge support for her case throughout the deaf community through the #WhereIsTheInterpreter? campaign. The campaign, led by Lynn Stewart-Taylor (@jerseysnail), 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 of Deaf people has been an active supporter of this campaign and provided evidence in the Judicial Review.
Solicitor Chris Fry, Founder of Fry Law, 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.
“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.”
Amanda Casson-Webb, joint chairperson of the Royal Association of Deaf people (RAD), said:
“Since March 2020, RAD has been an ardent supporter of the Where Is The Interpreter campaign. We have been proud to stand alongside friends and colleagues within the deaf community to put pressure on the UK Government to recognise its grossly unfair treatment of deaf people – and to redress this by providing an on-platform interpreter for all live Government announcements and briefings.
“We want to see deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users fully involved and included in every aspect of life. Deaf people should be able to access information independently and on a par with the rest of society. Instead, many have been left feeling unsure, unsafe and scared; having to rely on charities like RAD to provide accessible versions of critical information, after the fact – or worse, having to depend on a friend or family member to explain what is happening.”
Chris Fry, said:
“Ensuring that information is provided in an accessible format can rarely be more important than in the midst of a pandemic. This case has brought Deaf people together in the most remarkable way to challenge the Government to do better, and to fulfil what we say are its obligations under the Equality Act. It’s about time that the Deaf Community is ‘levelled up’ by this Government.
They have a number of obligations under the law to ensure that the information they provide is accessible to deaf people and my client believes that they breached these obligations in relation to the covid briefings. We hope that the court will agree and that the government will review its provisions for the deaf community to ensure that they have the same access to information as everyone else.”
The decision of the court is likely to be reserved.
Over 100 deaf people throughout the country have arranged to watch the case online and many are watching in Community Halls and Deaf Associations up and down the Country.
Katie will argue in the case that there were a number of issues with the ‘in screen’ interpreter provisions including:
- 21/09/2020 – first Scientific Briefing about the rapidly escalating infection rate – no BSL Interpreter on the BBC and therefore no live feed.
- 24/09/2020 – where financial arrangements set out – no BSL interpreter on the BBC and therefore no live feed.
- 26/09/2020 – where death rate had exceeded 100,000 – no interpreter provided.
- 12/10/2020 – second Scientific Briefing – Professor Whitty stated that the number of patients being treated for covid were rising in the North West, North East and Yorkshire – no BSL Interpreter on the BBC and therefore no live feed.
- 03/02/2021 – 10 million vaccinated, roadmap to be announced – no interpreter.
- 28/04/2021 – update on vaccine effectiveness – no interpreter until 13 minutes and 47 seconds into twitter feed
- 14/05/2021 – explanation as to the Indian variant of the virus and to urge caution in light of the next easing of restrictions – 15 minutes into broadcast (24 minutes into the twitter feed) the interpreter disappeared leaving 25 minutes without any interpreter.
Whilst estimates vary, there are approximately 73,000 Deaf people who are British Sign Language (BSL) users in England, and 127,000 BSL users in total.
According to research produced by Open Inclusion, the average reading age of people who use BSL as their first language have an average reading age of 9 years. The majority of information provided on the .Gov website requires a reading age of higher than that. Some require University + reading levels.