More than 200 disabled people have signed up for a class action against UK supermarkets over allegations that they have discriminated against them during the coronavirus crisis, in what is believed to be the biggest legal case of its kind.
So far, 213 disabled people have told solicitors Fry Law they want to take a legal case for discrimination* under the Equality Act against a supermarket for failing to make the reasonable adjustments necessary for them to be able to shop safely during the pandemic.
Many have found it impossible to order home deliveries online, because they are not in the small proportion of disabled people seen by the government as being “extremely clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.
But about a third of the 213 claimants are in that small group and have still faced problems securing groceries during the pandemic crisis.
Some of the claimants could shop safely in-store if their local supermarket was willing to make reasonable adjustments for them, but are prevented from doing so, for example, by having to queue to enter the store – with no seats while they are waiting – or not being allowed to bring a companion with them to help them shop.
Four-fifths of those bringing cases have been required to shield themselves at home for 12 weeks or cannot access a supermarket without assistance.
About two-fifths of the cases so far involve Sainsbury’s, nearly a third involve Tesco, with about one in seven mentioning Asda, while about one in 12 concerns Morrisons.
More than a half have already lodged their own complaints with a supermarket but have been ignored.
Chris Fry (pictured), founder of Fry Law, said he believed it was now the biggest legal case ever taken in the UK on disability discrimination in the provision of services, and that disabled people were “taking on the policies of the supermarket giants”.
He said: “This is the highest number of cases on a single issue that I think there has ever been in terms of consumer-related discrimination cases.
“I can’t think of any other situation where in terms of disability rights in a consumer context there has ever been such a high number of people challenging over the same issues, so we are breaking new ground on this.”
Fry Law is taking the cases on a no-win no-fee basis, but because of the COVID-19 crisis it has decided not to take any success fees – usually 25 per cent of the pay-out in such cases – if its clients secure any damages.
Fry’s team is working with barristers at Cloisters chambers, led by discrimination law expert Catherine Casserley, and they have already begun sending out letters of claim to supermarkets.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to raise its own concerns about the failure of supermarkets to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.
EHRC said its concerns included the availability of online deliveries, long queues in stores, changes to policies on accompanied shopping, and inaccessible websites and telephone helplines.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, says in the letter: “I am writing to ask you to contact your members as a matter of urgency and highlight the need to respond with compassion, flexibility and understanding to meet the needs of disabled people and ensure that no customer is forgotten about.”
A BRC spokesperson said it was still examining the EHRC letter and considering how to respond, and would not comment on an ongoing legal case.
But Andrew Opie, BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said retailers were working with the government to identify and support “elderly, vulnerable and disabled customers”, increasing delivery capacity, prioritising deliveries to these groups where possible and “encouraging those who are able to shop in-store to do so”.
He added: “It would be impossible to deliver to all of the 11-plus million people classified as long term ill, impaired or disabled in the UK.”
*To request that your case is added to the legal action, complete and submit this form
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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