Accessing Courts or Tribunals

Disabled people accessing Courts and Tribunals

Courts and tribunals (which we’ll call courts here for simplicity) are service providers or public functions which means they are subject to the Equality Act in England, Wales and Scotland (or DDA in Northern Ireland). If courts discriminate against disabled people or fail to make reasonable adjustments, we can make a complaint of disability discrimination.

You may also wish to read Stammering Law’s page about appearing in court with a stammer which is specific to one condition but does also have more detailed commentary and analysis than us.

Courts accessibility information

You can get some information about court buildings including physical access and services online using:

The English and Welsh courts provide very basic text and graphical disability access information listed under the “Building Facilities” heading. The Scottish and Northern Irish courts have access information listed in a very long page. Having the relevant page bookmarked on your smartphone might be useful to you.

In practice, we know that published court access information is not always 100% accurate so it can be worth visiting the court in advance. Most courts allow access to the public where you may be able to ask staff some basic questions or look round the relevant public areas. If your access needs are more complex, you have more questions or you don’t wish to just turn up, you can contact the court to arrange a visit to discuss disability access in advance.

If you cannot access the Court’s published information or can’t find what you need, then contact the court directly and ask to communicate with someone in a way which is accessible to you. Be clear what your court timescales are, e.g. what date your court hearing is on.

Legal bases for requesting adjustments from courts

While judicial functions are exempt from the Equality Act this doesn’t exempt all judicial work and judges are bound by at least two pieces of case law to follow the guidance in the Equal Treatment Bench Books (ETBB).

Despite our legal rights, in practice getting access to courts can sometimes be more difficult than it should be with physical and attitudinal barriers. We hope this page will help you do your research and do some preparation so you are able to deal with any barriers you encounter.

Equal Treatment Bench Books – legal guidance around adjustments

Equal Treatment Bench Books are a guide for the courts in access for a range of potentially marginalised court users including disabled people. There is some case law, discussed below that requires judges to seriously consider implementing bench book adjustments.

We recommend downloading the relevant bench book and searching it for your condition or impairment type to get ideas of adjustments you can request

Case law relating to Equal Treatment Bench Books and considering disability needs

It may be helpful to cite case law relating to Equal Treatment Bench Book content if a court, tribunal or judge is not cooperating around adjustment.

J v K & Anor [2019] [Court of Appeal judgment]

Paragraph 33 of judgment
I start by saying that it was common ground before us, and I would myself emphasise, that where mental ill-health, or indeed any other disability, has contributed to a would-be appellant failing to institute an appeal in time that will always be an important consideration in deciding whether an extension should be granted under rule 37 (1A) of the 1993 Rules. That is not as a result of the Equality Act 2010, since, as was also common ground, judicial decisions are excluded from the scope of the Act: see paragraph 3 of Schedule 3 to the Act. But as a matter of general law the exercise of a judicial discretion must take into account all relevant considerations, and in such a case the party’s mental condition or other disability would plainly be a relevant consideration.

R. (on the application of King) v Isleworth Crown Court (2001) [High Court judgment]

This case says judges and all courts must follow the advice in the Equal Treatment Bench Book to ensure litigants are given access to justice.

Paragraphs 37-43 of judgment
37. In July 1999 the judge did not have the benefit of the advice which has recently been given by the Judicial Studies Board to all judges in the country in the new sections of the Equal Treatment Bench Book which were published with a good deal of publicity in the late autumn of last year.
38. Section 9 of that Bench Book is concerned with disability. “For instance on a general point, persons with disabilities may be more nervous and under more stress than persons who do not have such disabilities. It might be helpful to consider the order in which evidence is heard so they are not kept waiting longer than necessary.”
39. On page 150 in what is called “trial management and disability”, judges are advised there are a number of key elements which a judge may need to consider when a person has a disability, for example: “(a) such persons may need more time, (b) the stress of coming to court may exacerbate their symptoms.”
40. On page 152, there is the advice: “Vulnerability of witnesses with physical disabilities.”
41. The third item is: “‘Fatigue’ trying to cope with a disability or impairment of a new situation can be stressful and tiring.”
42. Finally, on pages 156 and 157, in part of a glossary of the affects of a large number of different well-known disabilities, there are two paragraphs concerned with cerebral vascular accidents. After describing what a CVA or stroke entails, the second paragraph of this advice to all judges reads:
“For some individuals communication can be a great problem and can take the form of not being able to pronounce words or put them in the right context or order. Individuals may also be unable to understand what is being said. Stress and fatigue can make all symptoms worse. Frequent short breaks should be taken.”
43. The rest is not relevant. As I have said, Judge Katkhuda, and indeed the justices (because justices of the peace are also provided with the opportunity of learning the advice on equal treatment given by the Judicial Studies Board), did not have the advantage of that advice. I wish to stress in this judgment that this advice is important advice which every judge and every justice of the peace is under a duty to take into account when hearing a case involving people with one disability or another.

Dr R Heal v The Chancellor, Master and Scholars of the University of Oxford and Others [Employment Appeal Tribunal judgment] [2020]

This was a tribunal hearing about the claimant’s request to use a recording device as a reasonable adjustment for disability during hearings.

Paragraph 27 of judgment
“27. The effect of these provisions in the present context, read with the authorities above and the terms of s.9 of the 1981 Act, may be summarised as follows:
  a. Tribunals are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any substantial disadvantage related to disability in a party’s ability to participate in proceedings.
  b. Where a disability is declared and adjustments to the Tribunal’s procedures are requested in the ET1 form, there is no automatic entitlement for those adjustments to be made. Whether or not the adjustments are made will be a matter of case management for the Tribunal to determine having regard to all relevant factors (including, where applicable, any information provided by or requested from a party) and giving effect to the overriding objective.
  c. The Tribunal may consider whether to make a case management order setting out reasonable adjustments either on its own initiative or in response to an application made by a party.
  d. If an application is made for reasonable adjustments, the Tribunal may deal with such an application in writing, or order that it be dealt with at a preliminary or final hearing: see Rule 30 of the ET Rules.
  e. Where the adjustment sought is for permission for a party to record proceedings or parts thereof because of a disability-related inability to take contemporaneous notes or follow proceedings, the Tribunal may take account of the following matters, which are not exhaustive, in determining whether to grant permission:
    I.The extent of the inability and any medical or other evidence in support;
    ii. Whether the disadvantage in question can be alleviated by other means, such as assistance from another person, the provision of additional time or additional breaks in proceedings;
    iii. The extent to which the recording of proceedings will alleviate the disadvantage in question;
    iv. The risk that the recording will be used for prohibited purposes, such as to publish recorded material, or extracts therefrom;
    v. The views of the other party or parties involved, and, in particular, whether the knowledge that a recording is being made by one party would worry or distract witnesses;
    vi. Whether there should be any specific directions or limitations as to the use to which any recorded material may be put;
    vii. The means of recording and whether this is likely to cause unreasonable disruption or delay to proceedings.
  f. Where an adjustment is made to permit the recording of proceedings, parties ought to be reminded of the express prohibition under s.9(1)(b) of the 1981 Act on publishing such recording or playing it in the hearing of the public or any section of the public. This prohibition is likely to extend to any upload of the recording (or part thereof) on to any publicly accessible website or social media or any other information sharing platform.”

J W Rackham v NHS Professionals Ltd [2015]

Stammering Law have a commentary on Rackham.

Paragraph 32 of judgment
“32. We do not think it could sensibly be disputed that a Tribunal has a duty as an organ of the state, as a public body, to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the disabilities of Claimants. Miss Joffe accepts, and indeed submits, that the particular route by which the obligation rests upon the Tribunal is unimportant, though it might be one of a number, because there can be no dispute there is such an obligation.”

Paragraph 36
“36 It is well known that those who have disabilities may suffer from social, attitudinal or environmental difficulties. There may be barriers to their achieving the rights to which as human beings they ought to be entitled. We therefore take the purpose of making an adjustment as being to overcome such barriers so far as access to court is concerned, in particular to enable a party to give the full and proper account that they would wish to give to the Tribunal, as best they can be helped to give it. We accept that practical guidance as to the way in which the court upon whom the duty to make adjustments for those purposes is placed should achieve this is given by the Equal Treatment Bench Book.”

Parts of paragraph 50
“[…]we would emphasise the importance for those who have disabilities that they be given proper respect for their autonomy as human beings. In many cases, if not most, a person suffering from a disability will be the person best able to describe to a court or to others the effects of that disability on them and what might be done in a particular situation to alleviate it. This may not apply, of course, to those who are challenged in such a way that they may lack capacity or perhaps be very close to lacking it. However, there is no reason to think that the Claimant here was in that category at all. […]

Requesting adjustments for court meetings and hearings

Who is entitled to adjustments in court

If you are a disabled person

  • involved in a court hearing,
  • having a meeting in the court buildings or
  • plan to attend a hearing as a member of the public

you have the right to request reasonable adjustments from the courts to do this.

In theory courts should be bound by the Anticipatory Reasonable Adjustment and Public Sector Equality Duties be as inclusive as possible, but in practice they often do not anticipate and the general under-staffing, under-resourcing and other issues, limits their effectiveness at disability access in practice.

You will find contact details for the court on the relevant webpage usually phone and email. If there isn’t a listed court manager, use the general enquiries details.

Plan ahead as much as possible

Start your communication as early as possible as the court staff are very busy so it may take several attempts to get through by phone, or emails may not be responded to for a few weeks. If you send an email, try to give as much key information as possible such as any hearing dates and what adjustments you need for access and communication. It can be useful to follow up any phonecalls or meetings with emails so there is a record of your requests.

We have had constructive experiences with sending a clearly laid out email explaining issues outlining adjustment requests and directing the reader to the relevant parts of the Equal Treatment Bench Book.

In our view, you should not have to ask for access in advance or obtain medical letters for bringing assistance animals, mobility aids or medical equipment with you to court – although it can be a valid anxiety-reduction strategy to do these things.
from courts. If your impairment isn’t listed, look for something similar, or similar solutions and refer to that.

Court staff – rule-based mentality

Courts run largely on very strict rules to ensure people’s legal rights are met and cases are not ruined due to process failure. This can lead to court-staff almost robotically refusing any request that seems to be a bit different because of the rules-mindset. We believe this is rarely malicious.

We recommend that you challenge unreasonable refusals gently and firmly, and repeat your request. It may be helpful for you to explain the nature of the barriers that you face or anticipate, as staff may then become more understanding or be able to make suggestions you had not thought of. It can also be useful to make sure you are speaking to someone with expertise and training in disability or reasonable adjustments for that court.

Escalation or judicial orders may be needed

Another reason to make your reasonable adjustment requests early is that in some cases your request may need to be escalated to more senior court staff or a judge to make a decision. While courts are service providers, sometimes they will refuse access requests (especially those which cost money or change normal procedure) unless a judge makes a ‘legal order’ which can usually be done as a ‘paperwork process’.

Even after a senior person or judge is involved we have found that courts can try and insist you accept a different (often cheaper or easier) adjustment instead of what you asked for e.g. loop instead of BSL/English interpreter or STTR. If this alternative is not suitable, respond to the the court politely and firmly to explain why the alternative adjustment is not suitable and why your original request needs to be met.

Known challenges accessing courts – and possible strategies

This section outlines some of the typical ways courts operate so you can identify if there are barriers you may face and how to resolve them.

Court Security

Bag searches and banned items

Due to the high risk of violence from a minority of court users, all court or tribunal buildings will have extensive security. This is a lot like an airport, so you may have to walk through scanners, be wanded and your bags may be searched or scanned too. Certain items are not allowed in court buildings. A list of banned items for England and Wales courts is published so you can avoid taking these items with you to court.

You need to take all metal objects out of your pockets, so if you can organise this in advance that will make things easier. If you have any metal implants or disability equipment that can’t be put through the scanners, you should explain this to the security staff.

Banned items can include tools commonly carried by wheelchair users. While some items such as Allen Keys can be handed over to security and returned to you when you leave the court, if the item (such as a multi tool) has a knife on it, then it is rarely given back to you that day. You have to apply to get it back in writing and can wait several weeks for it to be sent to you or you may have to collect it from a local police station. If you need tools, we recommend avoiding any with knives on them and being a set you can manage without in case they’re confiscated.

Known security issues

Many of the courts use outsourced security staff who in our honest opinion are often poorly trained (probably related to casualised contracts and poor training and working conditions). This means that security staff may have very poor disability awareness and not know how to communicate or deal with disabled people. They may try to refuse disabled people access into the courts with our mobility aids, medical equipment, service dogs and more.

We at Reasonable Access have experience of court security staff trying to refuse people access with TPN (medical feeding) equipment, wheelchair trays, manual wheelchairs, braille devices and assistance dogs as well as doing stupid things like talking to deaf people from behind and pointing or gesturing to visually impaired people.

Dealing with disablism by court security

Be prepared to politely but firmly stand your ground.

Whatever happens, do not allow court staff to take aids or equipment away if it may put your health or safety at risk.

If you have medical needs, or don’t wish to discuss your access needs in public, you should ask to have the discussion about these issues in a private space.

If your impairment and needs are not visible, then disclose as clearly as you can. For example “I am deaf, please face me and speak clearly when talking“. Do not let staff pressure you to taste medical liquids or disconnect any medical equipment that puts you at risk. If you need to carry banned items like needles for medication, explain that these are medical items that you need to carry at all times. If you have any kind of medical letter for your items, try bringing a copy with you as it may help. If you have an assistance dog, be prepared to remind staff that assistance dogs cannot be refused access and while you shouldn’t have to, you can try showing your dog’s pass.

If frontline court staff are not helpful

If front line staff persist in poor behaviour ask them to get their manager who may be better. If the manager is not helpful, then ask for the court manager or someone senior to be called.

If you are involved in a hearing (i.e you are the litigant or a witness for example) then you can insist that the judge’s clerk or the judge themselves is bought down to ensure you get access as you are being “prevented from getting access to justice”.

Contacting courts

Phone and email contact details for courts are usually found on the relevant court webpage which you can access using your country’s court information finder

Giving feedback about experiences

It can be useful to courts to get feedback (both positive and negative) about disabled people’s experiences. They may not be aware that there are problems at the front-line as practice is often very different to official policies.

Complaining to courts

If your access needs are not met despite requests and disclosure, you can complain to the courts the same way you would with any other service provider and may find our complaints page helpful