Effective Deaf Access to Justice

The issue

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (1995) legislation in Northern Ireland/UK and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) (2006) require legal service providers like solicitors (lawyers) to make “reasonable adjustments” in order to make legal services accessible to deaf people seeking their services on an equal basis with hearing and non-disabled people. “Reasonable adjustments” are defined as changes to services that make them more accessible. For example, UK solicitors believe that handwritten notes are a sufficiently reasonable adjustment that allows deaf individuals to access legal services; the Deaf community argues that sign language interpreters are a more reasonable adjustment. Many solicitors simply do not want to pay for interpreting services. Deaf people report they cannot afford to pay for interpreters and thus cannot access the justice system. Issues of this sort and deaf individuals’ access to justice are not just an issue in Northern Ireland, but arise in the United States and other countries around the world.

What we know

Deaf people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere need legal assistance to help with issues like buying a house, getting divorced, dealing with a car accident, and preparing wills. Without a sign language interpreter in meetings with solicitors, deaf people can miss up to 70% of what is said. Deaf people argue that handwritten notes are not accessible to many of them, and that the use of a sign language interpreter is their preferred way to communicate that provides them with full communication access.

Solicitors say that having to pay for a sign language interpreter is too expensive and so it is not a reasonable adjustment. As private companies, solicitors also claim the DDA and UNCRPD do not apply to them.

In order to provide true access to justice and the legal system, deaf people in many countries feel there needs to be training on Deaf cultural awareness for members of the legal profession, including police, solicitors, judges, and other people working in the legal system. Members of the Deaf community report feeling more comfortable going to the police, talking to solicitors, and participating in other parts of the justice system if relevant individuals better understood Deaf culture and if they had more access to sign language interpreters. Deaf people learning more about their rights (like those in the DDA and UNCRPD) is something that is important for Deaf communities to do around the world.

What we don’t know

There does not appear to be any research on the effectiveness of alternative means of communication in legal settings. While it is important to note that many deaf people, like those in Northern Ireland, prefer the use of sign language interpreters when accessing the justice system, questions remain about responsibility for paying for the service and ensuring its quality. It is important to bring together the Deaf community and people who work in the justice system like police, solicitors, and judges and discuss ways to resolve the issue of funding to pay for interpreters and larger issues associated with Deaf cultural awareness training. If a country with many resources like Northern Ireland is struggling to support deaf people accessing justice, this is also a big issue in countries that have fewer resources to support the Deaf community.


If countries are to comply with the UNCRPD and domestic legislation, members of Deaf communities and legal systems need to work together to decide on what “reasonable adjustment” means in different contexts. Members of the Deaf community in Northern Ireland, for example, have clearly said that handwritten notes are not an effective way to communicate, and so it is not a “reasonable adjustment.” There need to be ways to resolve such disagreements in a timely manner.

To make this point clear, the Deaf community in Northern Ireland wants legislation to protect their right to provide better access the justice system by recognizing both British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL). Such legislation would make BSL and ISL official languages and force solicitors follow the DDA and UNCRPD. In order to pass legislation of this sort, as some countries have done, members of the Deaf community and the legal profession must come together and change the conversation from “Can we accommodate?” to “How can we accommodate?” the Deaf community as they access the justice system and other public services. Making sign language an official language in countries around the world is one way to ensure more deaf people can access their rights to justice.

Posted on Jan 31, 2019 by
Brent C. Elder
Rowan University
elderb {at} rowan.edu

Michael A. Schwartz
Syracuse University
maschw01 {at} law.syr.edu


Further reading