I won Paulley v Ministry of Justice (2015) – without legal representation or advice.
Last summer, I had a legal case against multiple companies based on this little debacle about railway accessibility. Nearly all the companies settled out of court with a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t say who or what – other than to say I hopefully improved conditions for some disabled travellers a little, and that I was broadly satisfied.
However, one intransigent company refused to negotiate. We therefore ended up in a pre-trial hearing.
The Leeds County Court website states that blue badge parking is available if arranged in advance, but when I phoned the Court they flat denied this. They had no idea these spaces existed. They told me to park at a shopping centre some way away. My carer and I had a long push back.
I needed the loo as soon as I arrived (nerves!) The disabled toilet had an “Out of Order” sign on it. Receptionists and security didn’t know where there were any other accessible toilets. They eventually told me that the toilet was NOT out-of-order – it just had an “Out of Order” sign on it (for no known reason.) They unlocked it, it wasn’t broken and I used it. We left it unlocked.
I have hearing difficulties, particularly in large rooms or on conference calls. That’s why I was at Court for a hearing that would normally be held by conference phone call. Despite this, and despite having provided a loop for me many times in the past, there was no loop in the room. I struggled by. The judge referred the case for mediation, at my request.
After the hearing I needed the loo again. It was locked again! We had to get security to unlock it. It still had the sign on it, and it still wasn’t broken.
I complained, and wasn’t impressed with the Court Service’s response. I then sued the Court Service. The Treasury Solicitor made an out-of-court offer, including compensation. This was rubber stamped by a Judge. Case #1 against the Ministry of Justice settled.
The County Court Mediation Service wrote to me. They said they were a telephone-based mediation service. In this Kafkaesque world, they insisted I phone them to arrange mediation. I phoned up and explained I can’t do mediation by telephone due to hearing loss. I asked what alternative would they offer? Their answer: Sod all. The Mediation Service told me that they offer mediation by telephone, or nothing.
When I asked what reasonable adjustments they made for deaf people, their staff told me that I either had to use a text phone or a sign language interpreter (who would translate back and forth on the phone.) I didn’t think either option would give me a fair chance, so I got quite cross. I told the Mediation Service to sort it or I would sue them for disability discrimination. They claimed it is not possible to sue the Court service, at which point I said “Do you want a bet? I have already. Twice.”
The telephonist had previously claimed she couldn’t put me through to her manager, but at that point suddenly decided she could. He told me they can do face to face mediation for deaf people, and that his own employee was wrong. He arranged a date for it to happen at Leeds county court.
When I turned up at Court (NB: in a case about wheelchair access) I discovered the room booked for the mediation was totally inaccessible to wheelchair users (steps, narrow corridors…) The mediator and staff scrambled at the last minute to find another room. This was doing my already nervous state no good whatsoever, as you can imagine. When we finally entered the room, they hadn’t provided a hearing loop. I complained, so they gave me a directional listener (which they seem to think is a loop); then when I complained again, staff brought in a huge loop system of wires and gadgets which would take ages to install. By this time we were well into the 60 minutes allotted for mediation. The mediator had to move from the judge’s table to sit directly in front of me, and we got by. The Courts never set up in the loop. The mediation was successful.
Before we left, I needed the loo. The disabled toilet was engaged. I waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually my carer knocked on the door. (We left it as long as possible; I hate having to knock as there are times I take a while in a toilet due to disability and I don’t like people knocking on me.) We got no answer, so (due to my desperate need for the loo and just in case somebody had fallen over) we went to Reception to ask them to check the toilet. They merrily informed us that the disabled toilet was out-of-order, but they hadn’t put a sign on it. Taste the irony: last time I found it locked with an “out-of-order” sign even though it was working fine; this time it actually WAS out-of-order but they hadn’t put a sign.
At least this time staff knew where the alternative disabled toilet is, but even Toilet #2 had no soap, no soap dispenser nor any indication there ever had been one….
The Ministry of Justice didn’t respond to my complaint, so I sued them again. They refused to negotiate. (Case #2.) It’s now 10 months later, and the trial and verdict were today.
I was suing the Ministry of Justice, represented at the hearing by a top barrister instructed by the Government Legal Service – Alexander Modgill. A very capable and experienced barrister. He did his clients proud: the cross-examination was a most rigorous, draining and unpleasant experience; I don’t know how barristers do it!
On my side? Me. No legal training, no legal advice, and no representation. Suing the Ministry of Justice in its own buildings, using its own procedures. Talk about David and Goliath!
Deputy District Judge Branchflower found against me on most counts. His judgment (paraphrased) was that because I was eventually able to have face-to-face mediation, access the alternative room and hear the mediator there was no discrimination, despite the intense frustration I experienced. I respectfully disagree: I think any reasonable person would be wound up and upset by what happened, which isn’t a good frame of mind to attempt mediation.
The Judge decided that the M. O. J. discriminated against me when I rang them. The mediation service’s initial insistence that the mediation has to be by telephone and blanket refusal to consider any alternative was discrimination. He awarded damages (dosh) for injury to feelings (at the lowest amount possible.)
It is now public record that the Ministry of Justice discriminated against me counter to the Equality Act 2010.
The irony of this success has gone to my head somewhat (I’ll squash it back down, sorry!) My childish glee at winning this case against such a “foe” aside, I hope my legal action has made a minor difference on the ground. Leeds County Court’s management committee met with me a couple of weeks ago, to discuss access difficulties and how the Court could be more pro-active on improving things. This should hopefully make things slightly better for disabled people accessing Court services in the future.
It just goes to show that even a disabled “Litigant in Person” can take on the big cheeses and win.
(My guide on suing about disability discrimination as a Litigant in Person, “Legal Suage for Crips”, is half written and will eventually appear on this website…)
With thanks to my excellent carer Mike.