More than 150 Deaf people have begun a legal class action against the UK government over its failure to provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter at its televised daily coronavirus briefings.
They are seeking damages from the government – and a written apology – because they say it has discriminated against them under the Equality Act.
They also want the government to promise to provide an interpreter at all the future televised coronavirus briefings.
It is the second such mass legal action linked to the country’s response to the pandemic that has been launched this month by solicitors at discrimination experts Fry Law and barristers at Cloisters chambers.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that more than 200 disabled people had signed up for a class action against UK supermarkets over allegations that they have discriminated against them during the coronavirus crisis.
Now at least 155 BSL-users are seeking damages* from the government for breaching the Equality Act by failing to provide an interpreter for nine separate daily briefings by prime minister Boris Johnson at the beginning of the pandemic crisis, between 3 and 19 March.
These first few televised briefings provided vital information to the public, including informing them that they should avoid pubs and restaurants, that schools were closing, and advising them how to protect themselves from the virus.
Their lawyers have been in discussions with government advisers for weeks but have decided to launch the case after failing to make significant progress.
Chris Fry, founder of Fry Law, said: “This really matters to people. There are 87,000 people for whom BSL is their first language.
“It is just not acceptable that their needs are ignored.”
He added: “Up until the supermarket issue, this kind of thing had never happened before, and what we are seeing is people prepared to stand up for themselves, because I suppose they are backed into a corner in a way that hasn’t happened in a generation.
“People are standing up for themselves and they are working as a community to try and achieve change.”
Campaigners are also crowdfunding for a second legal action, which – if they raise the necessary funds – will seek a judicial review of the government’s decision not to provide an interpreter at the briefings, which they say has breached the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN disability convention.
The judicial review action has been backed by more than 20 organisations, including the Royal Association for Deaf People, the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters, the UK Council on Deafness and Disabled People Against Cuts.
Fry Law has been told by the government that, because of the need for social distancing, there is no space for an interpreter behind the senior ministers and other government figures who deliver the briefings.
But Fry said: “Our message to Downing Street is that we would like to be involved in sitting down and trying to sort this out.
“We have got a fantastic group of campaigners who would like nothing more than to sit down and explain why this is so important.
“Sorting this out would not be expensive.”
He said the damages case was being taken because Downing Street’s response to the judicial review had been seen as “dismissive”.
The legal actions stem from a campaign launched by BSL-user Lynn Stewart-Taylor, who noticed the absence of an interpreter at the 5pm government briefings and realised that she and other Deaf people were being deprived of “urgent” and “critical” information that could help them stay safe.
She first noticed the absence of an interpreter on 9 March, when she launched the #WhereIsTheInterpreter hashtag on Twitter.
She has sent Twitter messages every day to the prime minister and other ministers but has yet to receive a response.
The BBC has since introduced an interpreter for the briefings, but only on its news channel, while its BSL translation is not shared by other broadcasters and does not appear in clips on social media.
Campaigners point out that many other countries around the world, including Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, France, Japan, Italy and New Zealand, have all been able to provide an interpreter for their coronavirus briefings.
Stewart-Taylor, a consultant, researcher and writer, said she felt that BSL-users were being treated like “second class citizens” by the UK government.
She told DNS: “Other countries are listening and have taken action to do their duty, so why can’t they? Is it that difficult?
“Do we matter? Obviously not!”
She added: “The challenge of not having an interpreter means that the deaf community are not getting access to this vital information at the same time as hearing people.
“This is putting us at an extreme disadvantage and potentially putting us and those around us at risk.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We are not going to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.
“It is vital that public health information reaches everyone across the country, which is why we have reissued guidance to every government department reminding them that all their communications must be fully accessible, to ensure they reach everyone in appropriate, inclusive formats.
“We have established BSL interpretation at the daily No 10 press conference via the BBC News Channel and iPlayer, available on all TV packages as part of Freeview, and are working to ensure greater replication of this signed interpretation across a wider range of media channels.”
Picture: Yesterday’s (29 April) briefing with foreign secretary Dominic Raab (centre)
*To request to join the “no win no fee” legal action, fill in this form, which can be done using the SignVideo service
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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