Deaf woman wins legal challenge against government over lack of sign language interpreters at Covid briefings

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Katie Rowley,  took legal action against Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and won. (PA)
Katie Rowley, took legal action against Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and won. (PA)

A deaf woman has won a compensation fight on Wednesday after taking High Court action over a lack of British Sign Language interpreters at government coronavirus briefings in England.

Katie Rowley, 36, a self-employed actor and writer, from Leeds, took legal action against Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, saying the government had breached obligations by not making broadcasts accessible to deaf people under equality legislation.

A judge based in London ruled in favour of Ms Rowley. Previously, ministers disputed this, and lawyers representing Mr Gove said Ms Rowley's claim should be dismissed.

Mr Justice Fordham said the absence of any British sign language interpretation for "data briefings" on September 21 2020, and October 12 2020, constituted "discrimination" against Ms Rowley.

He said damages would be assessed by a judge in a county court and added that the government was not "in present or continuing breach."

When the claim was issued Katie was 25 weeks pregnant and particularly anxious to protect the life and health of her unborn son, solicitor Chris Fry, representing Katie, said.

British Sign Language is Katie’s first language, she cannot follow conversations or access spoken information without an interpreter. She is also visually impaired and dyslexic, Fry added.

Similar briefings by Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, his Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon and from Stormont in Northern Ireland included British Sign Language interpreters on screen.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said after the ruling, "We are pleased that the court ruled our policy of using on-screen British Sign Language interpreters was lawful during the pandemic."

"Our priority has always been to reach the largest possible audience with important public information, and we will continue to ensure that British sign language interpretation is made available during Covid-19 briefings."

Officials said there had been more than 170 Covid briefings, and "only two" were found to be unlawful due to lack of British sign language on screen.

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