The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has announced the results of new research showing what could be done by solicitor firms to improve access to their services by those with a mental or physical disability.
The research, commissioned by the SRA and undertaken by YouGov, was designed to explore the reasonable adjustments that solicitors and law firms need to make in order to ensure that legal services and information provision is made more accessible for disabled people. It follows suggestions from consumer groups and charities such as Citizens Advice and Age UK who have suggested that specific action needs to be taken to ensure that law firms provide information in a clear and accessible way to those who are disadvantaged in communication, for example due to a disability.
The research found that the early identification of needs, and the resulting adjustments that were required to be made, was vital if those with disabilities were to access legal services in an effective manner. More than half of those interviewed reported finding legal services difficult to access, with only one in four ever remembering being asked if they needed any reasonable adjustments to be made.
The research found that the problem of access to legal services was particularly acute for those whose disabilities were not immediately obvious and many of whom stated that they lacked the confidence to make requests themselves for information or services to be offered in a different way. Those who had successfully instructed a solicitor stated that their impression of the service was generally positive, with the most important factor influencing this being the attitude and flexibility of frontline staff working for a firm.
The research also found that the most common issues disabled people raised about accessing legal services were:
- Almost three quarters were rarely or never proactively asked if they needed adjustments when accessing professional services.
- The most common barriers to services being accessible were unhelpful staff and the disabled person’s own anxiety or lack of confidence.
- Those with less visible impairments, such as mental health and learning or social disabilities, face a different and more challenging experience in accessing information and services to those with more visible impairments.
The research has suggested that firms meed to make a number of key improvements if they are to make their services more accessible to those with a disability. These include:
- Proactively asking all clients if they need any reasonable adjustments to be made, with examples of what form these may take.
- Introducing easier-to-navigate and more accessible websites, with dedicated information for those with disabilities.
- Adding pictures of their offices on their website, to help people feel familiar with them and judge how accessible they will be before visiting.
- Train staff in supporting vulnerable clients, and actively promote any relevant expertise, partnerships or accreditations.
In compiling their research YouGov surveyed more than 3,500 disabled people through a combination of online surveys, one-to-one interviews and online forums. A workshop was also held with charities and stakeholder groups, alongside a review of existing literature published in this area.
Solicitors and law firms have duties under the Equality Act 2010 and the Code of Conduct to treat people fairly and without discriminating against them on the grounds of characteristics including disability.
Infolegal will be taking the results of this research and other materials producing a guide for its members on the steps they need to take to provide reasonable adjustment.