Sign outside Manchester Civil Justice Centre

Prioritising our legal work

by David Isaac

Published: 12 Apr 2017

As a lawyer it was inevitable that, on being appointed as Chair, I would be keen for the Commission to focus more on the use of its legal powers. I feel very strongly that we should become a more muscular regulator. In doing so, we can support organisations and individuals to meet their equality and human rights obligations and, where necessary, help people enforce their rights.

I’m delighted that we have a talented and dedicated legal team, and this year we already have several successes under our belt. But what’s clear to me is that many people don’t know enough about what we do and how we use our legal powers. This work often takes place under the radar, and we need to make more people aware of it. 

One of the achievements I’m most pleased about is our new legal pilot to help improve access to justice for people who’ve experienced disability discrimination. Access to justice is a key issue for us: whilst a country might have the strongest equality and human rights laws in the world, it is of little use if its citizens find themselves priced out of justice.

The Commission’s role is to take a strategic view in funding cases that will help clarify the law and benefit a large number of affected people. However, in this pilot we decided to take a different approach and invite referrals for legal advice and representation in ‘grass-roots’ cases, which sit outside this remit. Cases related to the important areas of employment, education and access to services for disabled people. We’re still waiting for the final evaluation of this work, but the signs are extremely encouraging. We’ve considered over 150 cases for assistance and we’ve accepted over 100 of these – well over the target we set ourselves a few months ago. The pilot will mean that we will be able to ‘fast-track’ many more cases that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day. 

The case of 11-year-old Owen Porter is a great example of how this work is helping people. Owen has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, but he is unable to get trains from his local railway station because it doesn’t have disabled access. As Owen’s family rely on public transport this means arduous journeys for hospital appointments and days out. Our funding will help him bring action against Network Rail to ensure that the station is made wheelchair accessible.

Overall we’ve been able to offer more than £250,000 of legal assistance that will provide direct routes to justice for disabled people facing a range of problems. The pilot has enabled us to gather valuable intelligence on the issues disabled people face and we are hoping that it will help us to adopt similar strategies in other areas of the Commission’s work in the future.

Perhaps less well-known is the informal, pre-enforcement activity that we carry out as part of our legal work. One example of this is how we’re working with Premier League clubs to improve accessibility to football grounds for wheelchair users and other disabled fans. This is a work in progress and we will shortly be reporting on how clubs are responding. Using our pre-enforcement powers, we have also recently persuaded a holiday company to remove restrictions which automatically rejected bookings by same-sex couples. In addition, we have worked with a national hotel chain to improve the equality and diversity training offered to their staff after they lost a race discrimination case at an Employment Tribunal.

This type of legal work – often unseen and behind the scenes – has lead to some of the biggest changes in company policy and services to people. We would much rather work in partnership with businesses, rather than against them, but when we need to be more forceful we are not afraid to use our legal powers to drive change.

It’s been a strong start to 2017 with several important legal victories so far. We funded Doug Paulley’s successful case against FirstGroup in the Supreme Court which has helped give greater legal protection to disabled people using public transport. By supporting Mr Smith in his case against Pimlico Plumbers, we helped to protect the rights of workers in the ‘gig economy’. We are also awaiting several judgments over the next few months, which we hope will be equally successful in delivering further legal changes.

As we publish our new Business Plan for 2017 to 2018, I am confident that the Commission will be working even harder to use our legal powers to protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.