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Queen’s researchers launch report on access to justice for Deaf people in Northern Ireland

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the British Deaf Association Northern Ireland (BDA NI) have released a ground-breaking report on the barriers Deaf people face when trying to access justice in Northern Ireland.

The report follows a two year pilot project based in Northern Ireland, managed by BDA NI, a leading Deaf people’s organisation, in collaboration with Queen’s UniversitySyracuse University College of Law and Rowan University. The work was made possible through the Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) programme and the National Lottery Community Fund.

Article 13 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) states that disabled people have the right to effectively access justice.

Deaf people are denied access to justice for many reasons. Sign language users face significant language barriers when adequate access is not provided.

Dr Bronagh Byrne, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s and lead researcher on the project, commented: “Our research shows that significant communication barriers remain; most notably, access to and payment of interpreters across legal settings, and knowledge of what and how supports should be put in place.”

The report, and supporting resources, investigate these barriers and make a series of practical recommendations for rectifying the issues that the researchers unearthed.

The findings suggest that Deaf people’s access to the justice system is ad hoc and not well supported. Indeed, in light of the obligations established in Article 13, alongside the Committee’s commentary and Concluding Observations, it appears that current provision in Northern Ireland for Deaf people’s legal needs fall short.

"These barriers contribute to the silencing of Deaf people’s experience of crime in whatever form, as well as their experiences of administrative and civil law matters, and ultimately prohibit effective access to justice. At worst, it forces Deaf people into positions of significant vulnerability in situations where rights should be most at the fore; for example, in the reporting of serious crime, individual arrest, trial, or imprisonment,” added Dr Byrne.

“It is further highly concerning that in the context of 21st century citizenship and emphasis on civic duty, that sign language users are being prevented from being full citizens on an equal basis with others through their exclusion from jury service. We are pleased that this project has created space for discussion across the justice system on these important issues and look forward to addressing these through the project recommendations.”

A member of the Deaf Advisory Group said: “As a Deaf person, it has been thrilling to be involved in the Deaf Advisory Group for this project, and having an input in the co-production of this report over the last 2 years ensures it will impact on the lives of Deaf people. I believe the event and the report will raise awareness and ultimately lead to better service for all Deaf people in Northern Ireland.”

Majella McAteer, from BDA NI stated: “This is a hugely significant piece of work. While some barriers to the justice system in Northern Ireland had previously been identified, until now there has been a lack of comprehensive research on this issue. This is the first step, and we are now faced with the challenge of implementing these recommendations”.

Mr Justice Colton, Chairman of the Judicial Studies Board, said: “I warmly commend the work of the BDA in Northern Ireland in producing this important piece of research in which a significant number of judicial office holders were happy to participate. The judiciary has since benefited from a judicial training workshop delivered by BDA NI and I trust that all that flows from the research and the subsequent awareness raising will help to bring about a continual improvement in access to justice for Deaf people in this jurisdiction and foster greater confidence in the administration of justice.”

The full report, guidelines and video resources are available here: https://bda.org.uk/accesstojustice-bsl/#downloads