When we talk our clients through the court process, it’s a given that we cover the basics, from the details of their case and how it might progress to how to respond to questions in court. But, when your client is disabled – or, indeed you’re disabled yourself – it adds a layer of complexity that, quite frankly, shouldn’t be as difficult to navigate as it currently is.
Unfortunately, a new research project has found that only 2% of Britain’s courthouses are fully accessible in relation to variety of needs, and over three-quarters (84%) aren’t fully accessible for wheelchair users. Specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp delved into these numbers and, bolstered by their research, created an interactive walkthrough of a typical British civil courthouse.
An interactive tool that walks through a typical court process
Their aim was to provide barristers and other lawyers with a potential avenue through which to help their clients prepare for the various stages of their upcoming hearing.
The tool includes information specific to several hidden and visible disabilities – as well as a section for those with childcare responsibilities – covering some of the issues each demographic may face during the court process. You may find the tool a useful guide to help talk your clients through the court process and what they can expect to encounter on the day(s) of their hearing.
Connected to the tool is the firm’s research into the accessibility – or lack thereof – of Britain’s courthouses. Some of their findings are outlined below.
Only 2% of courthouses met all 11 accessibility criteria tested
The firm assessed 444 courthouses in England, Wales and Scotland on 11 accessibility criteria, namely: the availability of disabled parking, accessible toilets, lifts, hearing loop systems, interview rooms, baby changing facilities, video conference facilities, wireless internet access and witness support facilities, and whether courthouses offered wheelchair access and allowed assistant dogs into the building. Based on the listings on the government’s Court Tribunal Finder, only 8 courthouses in Britain offered all 11 accessibility features.
Over three-quarters of courthouses (84%) aren’t fully accessible for wheelchair users
Whether the courthouse is large or small, entering the building, navigating through it and finding an appropriate spot within the hearing room can all be more difficult if the space isn’t designed for wheelchair users. Not to mention any lack of functional lifts or properly equipped disabled toilets. Unfortunately, only 16% of the courthouses tested were found to be fully accessible, offering wheelchair access, disabled parking and accessible toilets.
Courthouses may need to provide better mental health support
Another aspect that was considered was whether there’s sufficient availability of witness support facilities, including quiet rooms and separate waiting rooms for people with mental health issues. Going to court can be a stressful experience for anyone, and the ability to retreat into a quiet, safe space before the hearing can be invaluable for clients. Unfortunately, the research found that only 22% of courthouses offer witness support and/or quiet rooms. While we, as their lawyers, can do our best to keep our clients calm and feeling prepared, the courts themselves taking a positive, active approach can help ensure they create an inclusive environment where anyone can seek justice in comfortable surroundings.
Most courthouses are equipped to facilitate those with hearing or sight issues
There are some positive notes, too. The research found almost 8 in 10 British courthouses offer hearing loops or hearing aid systems and note that they accept assistance dogs. More specifically, 69% of courthouses in Scotland, 77% of courthouses in England and 82% of courthouses in Wales offer these facilities. The report did note that it’s important that this is consistent across all courthouses in Britain, and that clear information is provided so that people with sight or hearing issues are aware of the services available to them.
Children’s facilities are readily provided in British courthouses
Additionally, people with children seem to be supported by the facilities available in courthouses. 64% of British courthouses were found to offer baby changing facilities, typically incorporated into the disabled toilets. That said, only 10% of courthouses offer a dedicated children’s room. While this may potentially be a deliberate move to dissuade parents from bringing their children to court, it can make it harder for parents who can’t afford childcare to attend court comfortably.
What’s next for Britain’s courthouses?
With all this in frame, what needs to be done in Britain’s court landscape? While some venues do make the effort to offer facilities to support vulnerable people and people with caring needs, more must be done to improve the situation across the country. While the government has followed a series of reforms over the past decade to improve the court process for all users, it’s clear there’s room for improvement. Hopefully, in the near future, we can remove these barriers and help our clients comfortably and confidently attend court if and when they need to do so.
Hasna Haidar is a digital researcher and writer for Greenlight, exploring topics around technology, equality in law, diversity and inclusion.