In a typical week we receive about 20 enquiries. In the last 48 hours we have received over 400 - the vast majority about disability discrimination related to face coverings. Despite a relatively clear Government exemptions policy, most members of the public appear to believe that everyone must be masked. Some, put in a state of fear by the coronavirus scare, are resorting to harassment and discrimination.
We are not lawyers, and we do not believe that any face-covering discrimination case has been to court. We have acted in one case and that was settled out of court for £7,000. This was because the Claimant obviously could not wear a mask and she was prevented from accessing an essential service. The company concerned had no choice but to do what it could to put matters right as it had so obviously messed up. Some businesses who are prepared to admit fault and own up will settle, but others may dig-in.
In that situation, The Equality Act (or Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland), which is believed to be the reason for the exemptions policy, can only be enforced by victims of discrimination taking cases to court. And, ultimately, only a court can decide if there has been discrimination and / or harassment in any particular case.
Legal aid is virtually non-existent and so lawyers are largely the preserve of the wealthy. Disabled people are not generally very rich. The idea of the county court small claims track is that claimants can use it themselves without lawyers. Using it is the only realistic way of making most Equality Act rights anything more than theoretical in England, with variations of this available in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
That doesn't mean it's easy though, but there is only really any point in using our template letter (posted in our last news item and based on the Equality Act 2010) if you are prepared to take that step afterwards if necessary. We cannot litigate as we are not solicitors, but sometimes support disabled litigants in person. Given the volume of enquiries at the moment it is unfortunately unlikely we will be able to directly help everyone. We are therefore hoping people can use the publicly available information that we use to pursue cases with confidence in their right to take action to protect basic civil rights.
At present it feels like disability discrimination is where race discrimination was in about 1950 and that can only be tackled by enforcing rights as described. We are recruiting staff so we can do more also.