Deaf woman wins court case against UK government over coronavirus briefings

LONDON — A deaf woman won a High Court action against the U.K. government after complaining about the lack of British Sign Language interpreting at official coronavirus briefings in England.

Press conferences from Downing Street have been a staple of the pandemic since the first full lockdown in March 2020, fronted by Boris Johnson or other Cabinet ministers alongside scientific advisers.

Katie Rowley, a self-employed actor and writer from Leeds, took legal action against Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, arguing the government had breached its obligations to make broadcasts accessible to deaf people under equality legislation.

Ministers disputed this and lawyers representing Gove said Rowley’s claim should be dismissed. The government previously highlighted that BSL interpreters were offered by the news channel which carried the broadcasts.

However, Rowley’s claim focused on two COVID briefings in September and October 2020 for which there was no sign language interpreter at all, either in person or superimposed by broadcasters.

She said the stress she suffered in being unable to access government information during the briefing impacted her health and wellbeing.

A judge ruled in her favor on Wednesday, finding that the absence of interpretation constituted discrimination.

The judge, Michael Fordham, said damages would be assessed by a judge in a county court and added that the government was not “in present or continuing breach.”

Similar briefings by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford included interpreters in the room.

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