With Deaf Awareness Week taking place this week, the spotlight is being shone on those consumers who are Deaf and how legal advice can best be provided to them. In this context, research by the Royal Association for Deaf People’s (RAD) Deaf Law Centre (DLC) has revealed statistics that show that an enormous 85% of Deaf people would prefer to have legal representation from someone who is able to communicate directly in British Sign Language (BSL), rather than through a BSL/English interpreter.
These statistics may not come as a shock to many. The intricacies of legal speak and its ‘translation’ into something that the average man or woman on the street can understand is difficult enough, without there being a third person effectively providing another comprehension hurdle that must be negotiated without any of the correct meaning being lost. Those who have never had to do so may not even have considered how communicating through an interpreter is likely to feel like something of a stilted process and, as the trust between solicitor and client is an essential relationship, how having what is essentially a middleman (or woman) involved can put that relationship on far shakier ground.
This issue was summed up by Rob Wilks, director of legal services at RAD Deaf Law Centre, who said: ‘The statistics prove that specialist legal advice from a solicitor who uses BSL is vital in order for Deaf people to be able to fully understand what can be very complex legal language – talking person to person rather than through a third party.’
So, what can the legal industry do to provide proper support and client care to deaf people who are looking for legal advice? At RAD DLC, they have established a system whereby a deaf person from anywhere in the country can obtain legal advice from a BSL competent solicitor at any time via a webcam. The centre is also using Deaf Awareness Week to try to encourage individual firms and solicitors to learn BSL themselves on a low-key basis in order to be able to provide legal advice to a wider range of clients. To this end they have set up a website that was launched this week, which offers legal professionals the chance to learn five BSL essential phrases each day until the end of the week. For those who want to continue learning at the end of the week there are numerous ways to do it, including online courses run by Signworld.
With around 8.7 million people who are classed as Deaf or hard of hearing in the UK, this is one consumer group that many firms would be wise not to ignore, particularly in the current environment where new instructions are enormously valuable. If Deaf Awareness Week results in more firms being able to offer Deaf clients BSL-competent solicitors, as well as opening up new channels of instructions at the same time, then it will have been a success all round.
Melissa Davis is MD of MD Communications which provides pro-bono communications support to RAD Deaf Law Centre