The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will have a “negative effect” on the deaf and hard of hearing, according to the only law firm in the country 700-505 with a practice dedicated to this part of the population.
Joseph Frasier Solicitors, based in Blackburn, Lancashire, launched a campaign in 2011 to make legal services more accessible to deaf people and has invested more than £200,000 in state-of-the-art technology to make its communications and services more deaf aware.
The firm has facilities such as webcams, text relay, MSN, text, Skype, Twitter and onsite interpreters to better understand clients. Fee-earners are British Sign Language trained and the cost of an interpreter is included in fixed price fees.
Chief executive Saimina Virmani said the 1 April reforms mean many deaf and hard of hearing claimants have “a rocky road ahead”.
She explained: “When deaf people need legal advice, they either go to a charity or a community group and get referred on through word of mouth to a solicitors’ firm.
“But with legal aid being cut, more and more prospective clients don’t qualify and because Jackson is putting such pressure on firms’ profits, many won’t pay for an interpreter.”
Ms Virmani cited a bleak picture in the north-west, with several firms going bust in recent months.
But she said her concern is not for her firm – turnover is up 77% in the past five years despite no external funding or major investment – but for the clients they have to turn away.
She added: “We’ve been quite successful because we’ve focused on a certain niche. My focus now is on lobbying for change. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) needs to properly regulate firms so that they only give advice to deaf clients if they have BSL-trained staff, the government needs to change the legislation on the control of noise at work and the state should consider serious provision for interpreters.
“[Last year] the SRA and Legal Services Consumer Panel published a report and came in to see what we were all about. But nothing’s been done to follow it up. There is less access than ever.”
At an event last week Joseph Frasier Solicitors was presented with its Lexcel accreditation and a Department for Work and Pensions ‘Positive About Disability’ award.
The only dedicated legal resource for deaf people is the RAD Deaf Legal Centre (part of the Royal Association for Deaf People). Last month it launched a call-centre style webcam portal to allow deaf people to get in contact in BSL online.