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What do clients with disabilities want from a family law firm or chambers?

Date:21 JUN 2022

The simple answer is that disabled clients want the same as non-disabled clients. What do all our clients want?

  1. To be able to access services in person.

  2. To be able to access services online.

  3. To be able to understand you, in person and online.

  4. To be able to access your building.

  5. be able to use your building's amenities with ease.

  6. To be able to access your online resources.

  7. For you to be able to listen and understand them.

  8. Excellent customer service (impossible unless 1 – 7 are extant) involves:

  • Keeping clients informed.
  • To know the likely legal outcome in their circumstances.
  • Knowing their objectives and want they want to achieve.
  • Avoiding the use of legal jargon and focussing on how to help.
  • Being able to get hold of you as their professional (not a junior unless that's who they've instructed.)
  • Being kept abreast of their costs and likely costs (to be updated)
  • Making sure the client knows how long things will take (to be updated).
  • That you will do what you say when you said you'd do it.
  • The list goes on . . ..

And you will have your own demanding additional list to make sure that you are the best family lawyer you can be.

Everything in point 8 is key to any successful and ambitious legal practice or chambers. But if 1 – 7 are ignored that'll just make it impossible for your disabled clients.

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'To be able' is key here. Have we made our services available to all?

Imagine if your clients could not hear you, could not see you, could not understand you, could not get into your building, office or meetings rooms and could not read your documents. You probably wouldn't be in business for very long.

This is the position that disabled clients are put in all the time. Everyday and everywhere. But maybe the legal sector could up its game to meet their needs without them having to ask for special treatment. I confess that I have so much to do to get this right. I am keen on inclusivity but know I need to take some action.

I don't want to be facile but I compare this to my need for gluten free food. When I go to a restaurant, I find it embarrassing that I have to ask what is or could be gluten free. Why can't the chef have already thought about it (and all the other dietary requirements) when creating the menu? A menu could be written with dietary requirements recorded. I just want to be an ordinary person in a restaurant and pick from the menu. I tend not to go to restaurants that don't bother to cater for my needs.

That's probably how our disabled clients feel.

It's very annoying and I'd say a micro aggression to have to spell out what the person with disabilities needs. Why should they? We all know they exist. Can't we simply anticipate what their requirements might be?

Over 20% of your clients will have a disability. If you are engaged by older clients that percentage climbs considerably. Remember that only 17% of people with disabilities are born with them. The chances are that your clients will develop disabilities as they age. (8% of children, 19% of the working aged and 46% of the pensionable aged. There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK. *Scope).

A reminder that the wheelchair user is not the only disabled client we will encounter. Here is a helpful list (going over the same ground as my March 2022 article in this journal at [2022] Fam Law 263):

  1. sight and hearing impairments;

  2. conditions where the effects vary over time or come in episodes such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and ME;

  3. progressive conditions such as motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy and forms of dementia;

  4. conditions which affect certain organs such as heart disease, asthma, and strokes;

  5. learning difficulties including those such as dyslexia and dyspraxia;

  6. autistic spectrum disorders;

  7. mental health conditions – for example, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder;

  8. impairments due to injury to the body or brain.

  9. cancer;

  10. HIV infection;

  11. multiple sclerosis;

  12. severe disfigurement;

  13. if a consultant ophthalmologist certifies you blind, severely sight impaired, sight impaired or partially sighted.

(See legallydisabled.com)

Much of this will be familiar to you though there might be some surprises.

The Social Model of Disability states that:

'. . . a person isn't “disabled” because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is commonly considered the medical “norm”; rather it is the physical and attitudinal barriers in society – prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion – that disable people. To say that someone is “just different” or “differently-abled” ignores the fact that they face these disabling barriers created by society, and implies that they do not experience discrimination, and that society does not need to change to become more accessible and inclusive' (www.shapearts.org.uk/News/social-model-of-disability).1

A Disability is caused by society's unwillingness to meet the needs of ALL people. The Social Model makes a clear distinction between impairment (a condition, illness or loss/lack of function) and disability (barriers and discrimination). The term 'Disabled people' is used to describe people with impairments who are disabled by barriers constructed by society.

The legal sector is part of society. Is it willing to remove the barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing their services? Given that 20% of the population may struggle, must give us pause.

The difficulty is that every disabled person is different from another. There is no 'one size fits all' solution. Potential clients may have more than one impairment that prevents them from having a good experience with your business.

A friend with disabilities said to me, 'people just think it won't happen to them and so they don't really care about considering our needs'.

Most of us will get depressed at one time or another. Many of us may be suffering from a mild form of depression following Covid (and during Covid). Depression is a disability.

It's old news that many of our family law clients will be devastated by the end of their relationships. They are likely to be depressed. (see Kubler Ross' grief cycle).

Can we as practitioners look after them better? Maybe we could offer well-being and meditation sessions. A definite is that we make sure they are consulting family consultants, therapists and maybe even their medical doctor. That's just basics.

Remember when assisting a client with disabilities note that there is a 'Disability Price Tag' which equates to extra monthly expenditure (compared with people without disabilities) of £583 per calendar month on average (Bringing (Dis) Ability to the Bar online launch 28 January 2022)

Many of us will have some form of neurodiversity that we don't talk about or more likely even know about. But it's becoming commonplace that our clients are either neurodivergent or are 'accused' of it. Their neurodiversity will be come into focus and may become part of the proceedings or be exacerbated due to the stress of the family breakdown. Arrangements could be made to make the whole experience for them more tolerable. Common traits are 'difficulties' with social interaction, social communication and repetitive behaviours. Consider how each individual can be assisted through any court process or non-court option. (See Neurodiversity: difference or disability? Communicourt a blog by Sophie Thompson and Jen Clark 19 March 2021).

Some are born with limited or no hearing abilities. Many of us will have hearing difficulties as we age. Although the deaf community using British Sign Language ('BSL') is small, it exists. I wonder if each firm needs its own BSL person for all times of day. We have first aiders, why not someone who can communicate using BSL? But all people with deafness will lip read if they are able to see. Are you in the habit of never covering your mouth when you speak? Most of our clients would benefit from being able to lip read (we all lip read a little bit) and if we spoke clearly.

Ten Commandments adapted from the Irish National Disability Authority:

  1. Always ask the deaf person how they want to communicate; never assume.

  2. Make good eye contact. Look directly at the deaf person. Don't look away, cover your face, chew gum, or have a pen in your mouth while communicating with a deaf person.

  3. Ensure the deaf person is looking at you before you attempt to communicate.

  4. Don't stand with a light or a window behind you. The light needs to be on your face – if not sure regarding the location, ask the deaf person.

  5. Be responsive: nod rather than saying 'hmmm'. Use gestures, body language and facial expressions to communicate the emotion of a message where appropriate (hint: avoid being overdramatic).

  6. If this deaf person wants to communicate by speech, you speak clearly and at a slightly slower pace, but don't shout or over-enunciate mouth movements as this will distort your lip patterns. Keep your head fairly still.

  7. If this person wants to communicate by note-writing, relax and be patient. You are obliged to respect his/her wish [and] respond by writing.

  8. Be prepared to repeat and rephrase information, if necessary (only for basic information); if information is more complicated, book a BSL interpreter.

  9. Refer to visual information (drawing, diagrams or photographs) during conversations; if the subject is getting complex, book an BSL interpreter.

  10. Best of all: learn some BSL!

If you have an event use BSL interpreter (online or in person) the cost is pretty cheap and worthwhile.

Develop and publicise your Accessible Information Policy. There is so much to do and think about but consider:

  1. The physical accessibility of your building and all the rooms in it. If necessary, arrange to provide your service in another, accessible building.

  2. Could someone be on hand to help with any physical needs?

  3. Locate information leaflets, intercom buzzers, door bells, lift buttons, and similar objects where everybody can use them.

  4. When speaking with a customer who uses wheelchairs or crutches, place yourself at eye-level in front of the customer so that they do not need to strain their neck to speak to you.

  5. If the customer needs to sign a document, offer a clipboard to hold the document. Be ready to hold the document where the customer can easily sign it.

  6. If the customer cannot turn the pages of an important information booklet, offer to help.

And so much more . . ..

  1. Greet a person by saying your name, as he or she may not recognise your voice. Do not ask or expect them to guess who you are, even if they know you.

  2. Talk directly to the person rather than through a third party. It's easier if you know the person with sight loss by name – say their name when you are speaking to them. If you don't know their name don't be afraid to ask, as well as giving your own name.

  3. Do try to speak clearly, facing the person with sight loss while you do so.

  4.   In a group situation, introduce the other people present. Address the person with sight loss by name when directing conversation to them in a group situation.

  5. If someone joins or leaves the group, tell the person with sight loss that this has happened.

  6.   Don't be afraid to use terms like 'see you later'. People with sight loss use these expressions too.

Before giving assistance, always ask the person first if they would like help, and if they do, ask what assistance is needed. Do not assume what help they need.

  1.   If a person with sight loss says that they would like to be guided, offer your elbow. Keep your arm by your side and the person with sight loss can walk a little behind you, holding your arm just above the elbow.

  2. When assisting, it is helpful to give commentary on what is around the person, for example, 'the chair is to your right'.

  3. If you are giving directions, don't point. Give clear verbal directions, for example 'the door is to your left'.

  4. Don't assume that because a person can see one thing that they can see everything. If necessary, ask the person if they can see a particular landmark or object.

  5.   Similarly, don't assume that a person using a white cane or guide dog is totally blind. Many people with some remaining vision use these.

  6. Never distract a guide dog when in harness.

  7. Always let a person with sight loss know when you are approaching. A sudden voice at close range when they didn't hear anyone approach can be very startling. Speak first from a little distance away, and again as you draw closer.

  8.   If you've been talking to a person with sight loss, tell them when you are leaving, so that they are not left talking to themselves.

  9. If you have been guiding a blind person and have to leave them, bring them to some reference point that they can feel, like a wall, table or chair. To be left in open space can be disorientating for a person with no vision.

  10.   Be punctual. Unpunctuality can cause a person with sight loss unnecessary stress. Remember too that the person may not be able to see whether you have arrived.

  11.   Indoors: To avoid the possibility of someone banging their head, close all doors and cupboards.

There are so many things that can be done to enhance the person with disabilities experience of legal services. Much too much to write about here. But hopefully you are getting the gist.

If you aren't sure what you need to do there are plenty of organisations who will carry out an audit of your organisation and make recommendations.

Things just need to be thought about, planned and made to happen. Consider appointing a Disability Champion or similar.

Have someone senior responsible for thinking about and actioning an action plan for disabled clients (and staff!). This could be cascaded to all and each department could be thinking about what they could each do. Could it be part of your annual appraisal for each member of staff too?

Try collaborating with affected clients (and staff) to get feedback and see how their needs could be met.

Let disabled people know what you are doing to help. They may be more likely to use your service over another. There could be profit in it for you. Lots of small things will soon add up to an inclusive service for all your potential clients.

With thanks to the Irish National Disability Authority whose work I have utilised in the writing of this article.

This article was published in the May 2022 issue of Family Law Journal. You can subscribe here.