New Zealand Law Society - Accommodating disabled and deaf people to access justice

Accommodating disabled and deaf people to access justice

Accommodating disabled and deaf people to access justice
Sue Plowman, General Manager of Auckland Disability Law

Auckland Disability Law (ADL) is the only specialist disability law community law centre in Aotearoa New Zealand. Sue Plowman and her team provide free legal services to disabled people associated with disability related legal issues. They do this for people right across the country.

ADL also provides legal education on disability law in the community and within disability and legal organisations, as well as advocating for changes to legislation through law reform.

Not unsurprisingly the team is in high demand. Capacity is always an issue with the number of people wanting their support, insights or knowledge at any given time.

Sue Plowman has been the General Manager since 2015. She makes time on a busy Friday to speak to us about ADL’s work and what the legal profession can be doing better to support Disabled and Deaf People.

“At ADL we see people who are involved in the legal process, whether it’s a court process, the police process or the mental health system whose access needs are not accommodated, and it really impacts on their access to justice.”

Creating an accessible legal service through changing attitudes and culture

All around us in the Mangere office there are examples of what ADL does to facilitate the access needs of disabled people. From the text line for communication with Deaf People and other groups in the community, to the business card Sue provides which has braille embossed details.

But before we talk about improving accessibility and how to understand what accommodations a client may need Sue is keen to talk about the need for changes in our culture and attitudes.

“As a profession we need to be prepared to accommodate and provide support to disabled people so they can access justice just like anyone else.

“That will take a change of attitude, not just within the legal profession but across society.

And it’s clear that things need to change. The outcome for many groups within the disability community is that they’re disadvantaged. They have real problems accessing justice.

“I think the question all lawyers should be asking when seeing clients is not “do you have a disability?” or “what is your impairment?” but “how can we accommodate you?”.”

Examples of accommodations

For the disability community to be included, people working in the legal profession need to consider how best to accommodate a range of access needs to ensure that people can engage in the legal process.

Sue provides some examples of the accommodations that will support disabled clients to overcome barriers to accessing justice.

Taking extra time

“At ADL we spend more time in client meetings and providing advice. We don’t do 15-20 minute client clinics. Our client meetings whether we meet in person, talk on the phone, Zoom or other means of communication are a lot longer than 20 minutes.

“That extra time is spent unpacking their legal problem and the legal process. I mean let’s face it for most people outside of the law, the legal process is complex and confusing.

“For people with learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, or brain injuries, that complex legal process can be an even bigger barrier to understanding what their rights are and the legal options open to them. Time is key.”

Providing information in the best format

One of the other important accommodations is to provide advice and legal documents in accessible formats. For example, Word documents for people who have braille readers or devices.

“We’re really big in the profession about using PDF documents, but some readers and devices don’t read them so it’s a bit of a problem,” adds Sue.

She also points to the need for information to be provided in plain language, and Easy Read formats.

For Deaf People having access to New Zealand Sign Language interpreters is essential. Sue points to New Zealand Relay Service which they use with Deaf, hard of hearing, speech impaired and deafblind clients. They also use in person NZ Sign Language interpreter at meetings with Deaf clients.

Communication assistants are important for some clients with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. Speech therapists can be equally important to work with for clients who have speech impediments, for example as a result of a stroke. Speech therapists, such as those provided by Talking Trouble, are really important for some people going through the court process and their access to justice.

Accommodating support people

“I know it can be challenging working with a third person due to the lawyer and client relationship,” says Sue.

“We are used to working within strict confidentiality and authority rules. But not having the right support person, whether they’re a professional or a whānau member can present a real barrier to a disabled person accessing legal services and ultimately justice.”

Physical access

When thinking about physical access there are the obvious elements like ensuring offices have lifts and ramps. But Sue also talks about providing communication access.

For example, ADL provides a text-only mobile number for people who are Deaf or have a speech impairment because they’re not going to be able to call the team. This is also important for people on low incomes as the cost of making a phone call, or even clearing voice messages, is another barrier to accessing legal services.

“A lot gets done on text actually,” Sue says.

Real change will only come with law change

Whilst there are accommodations that legal professionals can make to better support the disability community to access justice, Sue says there are much bigger challenges that no individual alone can fix.

“If the problem stems from the law, it doesn’t really matter what we do on the ground, it’s the law that needs changing.”

“That’s why our law reform programme is really important to us. We can do all the cases in the world but if the law is the problem then law needs changing.”

Examples that Sue points to include the first set of amendments to the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act going through the House at the moment.

“The legislation currently strips people of the majority of their rights, and the automatic rights that remain are very hard for them to access. But it takes time. We’ve been actively working on the reform since 2017 when the Ministry of Health began the most recent the community consultation. This was followed by the government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction whose report, He Ara Oranga, recommended that the Act be repealed and replaced.”

Legal aid is another area where significant change is needed.

“The data shows that for disabled people the cost of legal services is a significant barrier.”

Labour Market Statistics from December 2020 show that 38% of disabled people aged 15-65 are employed, and that’s compared to just over 78% of non-disabled people. And the unemployment rate for the same age group, 15-65 is 11.4% and that’s compared to 5% for non-disabled people.

The median weekly income from all sources for disabled people, so that’s employment, benefits, tax credits, superannuation is $402, and that’s compared to non-disabled people where it’s $713.

“The data tells a story about large groups of disabled people not being able to afford to pay for a lawyer or for legal service. And that’s problematic. It’s problematic because not only can they not afford to pay for legal service, but there’s big problems with our legal aid system.

“The legal aid system is vastly under-resourced as we know. The hourly rate is really low, the hours which are assigned to cases are very low, the additional funding for providing accommodations is very low. Then there is the paperwork that needs to be done.

“And we know that more lawyers have stopped doing legal aid work because of all those things. Which makes it even more important that when a disabled client has overcome the barriers to access your services, you’re as prepared as possible to support them to fully participate in the legal process and access justice.”

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