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Deaf people and the human rights time machine: What year are we in?

Published Date: 14 Jun 2021

Outside my work at the National Deaf Children’s Society, I’ve recently started volunteering as a school speaker for Amnesty International: teaching students about human rights and the work Amnesty does. Human rights don’t occur naturally. They have come about by people taking direct action, often after many years of trying and at considerable cost to individuals and communities.

Many people often think human rights abuses take place in faraway countries, but sometimes they can take place right here and sometimes they seem as if they can’t be true. I’d like to explain this through my volunteer work at Amnesty.

In the training to become a school speaker with Amnesty we were told we had to deliver a short lesson plan to teach students about an area of human rights. I chose the issue of our trial by jury system in our English courts, and I decided to show this through an interactive drama session using a ‘human rights time machine’.

All the volunteers were each given a card I had written with details of a different person who they had to pretend to be. The card told them their name, age, gender, job and whether they owned their own home, or if they had been in prison. But they did not know what year or century they lived in.

Everyone was invited into the ‘time machine’ and I pressed the button and told everyone we had now landed back in the 12th century. We were now going to select a jury. Everyone got out and they all lined up. I asked if anyone was a knight (yes, a knight in shining armour!). Everyone looked at their cards and all shook their heads. I announced that no one could be a juror. Why? Because when the first jury system which was introduced during Henry II’s reign, only knights were allowed to be jurors (twelve of them).

We went back into the time machine and landed at different points in history to show how the right for more people to serve as jurors has grown. For example, we landed in 1918 but women were not allowed to serve as jurors until 1919. We then landed in 1973 and even then, men or women could only become jurors if they owned their own house (Jury’s Act 1974).

Finally, the machine landed in 2019 but it may as well be March 2021. I asked volunteer ‘A’ to read out their card. They said their name was John, they were male, 40 years old, and they were a CEO of a private company employing 20 staff. John owned his own home and had never served any time in prison. I thanked John but said he was not allowed to be a juror.

All the volunteers taking part looked puzzled. I asked John to read out the last line on his card. It said he was deaf and a first language British Sign Language (BSL) user. I told the volunteers that jurors who require an interpreter are disqualified from being jurors. Why? Because a jury is made up of twelve people and a BSL interpreter is considered another person, a 13th juror, and therefore isn’t allowed in current law which dates back centuries! This is even though BSL interpreters routinely work in courts where the accused is deaf and requires an interpreter to participate in proceedings.

I know that many people, if given the option, would choose not to serve as jurors. That’s a separate point, as this is about equality. Other countries such as Canada, the United States and New Zealand do allow sign language interpreters and so deaf people can be jurors.

Covid-19 has transformed our lives, moving much of our communication online to Zoom and other platforms. The Ministry of Justice quickly adapted to allow trial by juries to carry on through socially distanced communication. And it is possibly this, which now appears to have moved the Lord Chancellor to announce new proposals to change the law to allow deaf people who use BSL interpreters to become jurors. This is great news, but it is sad that this proposed change could not have been brought about through a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the existing Equality Act 2010.

There is also the issue of deaf people who don’t use BSL and who rely on Speech to Text Reporting (STTR). The new proposals do not cover this area and the government have said that current STTR technology isn’t reliable enough to be used when juries are conversing but will keep this under review.

So, let’s hope the next time the time machine lands in 2022, we will hear stories of deaf people complaining that they have been selected to become jurors! Welcome to equality!

I’d like to pay tribute to the campaigning over the years on this issue by other deaf charities and other allies. I am particularly thinking of the actions by British Deaf Association (BDA), Jeff McWhinney, David Buxton, and the work by Professor Jemina Napier and colleagues at Herriot-Watt University, just to name a few.

The new proposals are set out in part 12 of the latest Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill: see here.

Chris Mullen

Chris is Social Care Policy Advisor at the National Deaf Children's Society.