3 December marks International Day of People with Disabilities 2021. This year’s theme, set by the United Nations, is ‘Fighting for rights in the post-COVID era’. The pandemic has highlighted the long-standing structural inequalities and discrimination that deaf and disabled people experience. These disparities are reflected in the grim figures from the Office for National Statistics, which stated that disabled people were twice as likely to die from COVID-19.

But in light of the changes to court hearings and format of proceedings as a result of COVID, what lessons can be learnt to ensure that the same disparity is not reflected for those with disabilities seeking to access justice?

Differently abled at the Bar

I spoke to fellow barristers with disabilities about their experiences at the Bar, how they managed their practices, and ideas for improving accessibility to justice. As someone who entered the profession without any discernible challenges posed by disability, I have felt, first-hand, the obstacles once circumstances change and the urgent need to adapt to preserve my practice. In early 2021, I was diagnosed with Stargardt’s (juvenile macular degeneration) which causes progressive sight loss. Having already been in practice for some years, the distinct lack of support available to practitioners with disabilities, both visible and non-visible, quickly became clear, as did our underrepresentation at the Bar. According to the Bar Standards Board’s latest report on Diversity at the Bar, of the 56.9% of barristers who provided information on their disability status, only 6.3% disclosed a disability. This is substantially lower than the percentage of disabled people in the employed working age UK population estimated at 11.3%.

Marisa Cohen, a public law barrister specialising in immigration and community care at Doughty Street Chambers, describes her challenges: ‘I have had my disability since birth and so it is not a question of adapting my practice – I have never had any other practice. I use a speech-to-text writer, otherwise known as a stenographer, to provide a live transcript in conferences and hearings. For communication with no more than two other people I rely on my bilateral cochlear implants and use a combination of lipreading and listening. The ratio of lipreading and listening depends on the clarity of those I am speaking with! The chambers I did pupillage with [One Pump Court] and my supervisors were extremely helpful in supporting me when I identified aspects of practice that I would not be able to do, eg telephone hearings (there were no video hearings in those days), and supported me in identifying alternative ways of working.’

Marisa suggests that a disabled barristers’ network is needed to provide joined-up thinking and support in relation to specific issues affecting those with disabilities at the Bar. In terms of logistics for hearings, Marisa proposes that court clerks email parties a week in advance in relation to any access needs of representatives and clients – in a similar fashion to current email correspondence about in-person/remote hearings. Further, there should be training for court clerks on disability awareness, specific disabilities and reasonable adjustments. Wider support across the senior Bar and judiciary is essential to achieve effective access to courts, she adds.

Rachel Barnes, who has an international practice at Three Raymond Buildings, shares her story: ‘I have a bilateral hearing loss, so I wear hearing aids and lipread. If I’m in a court in which I know I find the acoustics are difficult, or in front of a judge or judges who don’t know me, I will ask the usher or legal adviser/clerk if they could mention to the judge that I’m hearing impaired and rely on lipreading. If I have a video conference, I will ask the participants if they can turn their cameras on when they are speaking so I can see their faces and lipread.’ 

Rachel has words of encouragement for practitioners with disabilities in dealing with the challenges: ‘Know your needs: you will know these more than anyone else and the reasonable adjustments that you require. You will need to educate others. You are not asking for special treatment; you’re asking for equal treatment. You’ve worked so hard to get to where you are that you owe it to yourself and, when you’re practising, to your clients, to ask for the adjustments that help you perform at your best.’

Similarly, Marisa has this advice for those thinking of or applying for pupillage who may be concerned about broaching the issue of adjustments: ‘Even if you’re not completely sure, have a good idea of the support that you will need and how you will get it. This will increase your confidence in your applications.’ 

Rebecca Griffiths, who practises crime and regulatory at Apex Chambers, encourages students with a disability not to be put off: ‘It is well-known how competitive the process of progressing through to tenancy, but ultimately, if you are determined to succeed, you can. In my view, the very fact that someone with a disability has overcome significant hurdles in their journey to the Bar makes them more appealing to recruiters than their contemporaries.’ Rebecca tells me about the logistics of accessibility for disabled barristers and court users: ‘There are significant problems with accessibility of court centres. My own experience is of frequently abandoning mobility aids when appearing in listed buildings where the only access is via stairs. As Crown Court lists are only finalised at the end of the previous day, and as I regularly appear in different courtrooms on the same day, it is easier to forego my aids than attempt to make arrangements for all my cases to be listed in accessible courtrooms. It is unacceptable for such issues to be left to those with a disability, or for them to continue to feel excluded: those who have the power to remedy these failings must do so, and urgently. A first step would be the immediate appointment of a designated accessibility officer in every court centre.’ Rebecca goes on to say: ‘My ability to practise with a disability has been greatly assisted by accepting my limitations and developing ways to mitigate them.’

From a personal standpoint, although I have found a distinct lack of formal support networks for disabled practitioners, I have felt overwhelming support from other barristers who share some, or part, of my story. Their stories may not be of sight loss or blindness, but it has been those with hearing loss, mobility challenges and neurological conditions that have given me both practical advice and a sense of solidarity which is missing from the wider Bar.

What’s next? This is hardly rocket science

Although the impact of COVID has been particularly serious for those living with disabilities, it has meant that Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service has had to adapt to home working and remote hearings to manage the need for shielding and social distancing. Let’s think about how to extend this provision, to ensure that those with disabilities can access justice.

The justice system as whole, from making a complaint to police through to giving evidence in court, has to made easily and physically accessible to those with disabilities. Court buildings and witness boxes should be able to accommodate wheelchair and walking-aid users. Maintenance upkeep, such as ensuring that all light bulbs, speakers and microphones in courtrooms are working, will serve to assist those with compromised sight and/or hearing. Clearer signposting of facilities such as conference rooms and bathrooms (preferably in braille also), functioning lifts, handrails and high-contrast stair nosing would help to grant those with disabilities the independence to navigate court buildings.

The roll-out of laptops to magistrates in the family and criminal courts in 2019 should be extended to court users, so they are able to easily navigate the bundles which are mostly digitalised in these courts, especially while giving evidence, or during trials and contested hearings.

Managing a disability as well as a busy practice makes an already stressful job even more arduous. Second guessing what facilities will be available/working and the additional challenges on arrival at court is exhausting. I can only imagine how difficult this must be for someone who is expecting to be cross-examined or facing a long day of litigation, and managing mobility, sensory or neurological challenges.

The onus should be on the court, rather than the court user, to ensure that everything is in place for hearings to be effective; to ensure that justice is accessible for all, including those with disabilities, be they practitioners or clients. 


New: AllBar is a fresh initiative to support those with a disability who are practising at the Bar in England and Wales, or aspiring to do so. Follow on Twitter @AllBarUK 

Coming soon: Bringing (Dis)Ability to the Bar is a new organisation supporting aspiring barristers with disabilities and addressing the barriers faced on paths to tenancy, through research, education, lobbying, exclusive schemes and two-way mentorships. Follow on Twitter @BDABarOrg