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Law change opens doors for deaf jurors in England and Wales

Deaf people who require the use of a sign language interpreter will be allowed to take part in jury service for the first time, it has been announced.

Before this announcement, laws strictly prohibited anyone beyond the 12 sworn jurors from entering jury deliberation rooms. This is to safeguard against outside influence. It meant that an interpreter would be deemed an unlawful “13th person”, thus preventing those who require their assistance from participating in this important civic duty.

The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 announced last week (March 9th) means over 80,000 deaf people across England and Wales can now participate in jury service. It forms part of wider reforms announced that seek to build a fairer justice system.

Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said: “Disability should not be a barrier to people carrying out this most important civic duty. I am delighted we can open up jury service to many thousands more people and ensure our justice system becomes as accessible and inclusive as possible.”

BSL interpreters can already enter courtrooms to assist deaf jurors, however they are currently not allowed into the room where verdicts are considered. This has meant that people with significant hearing impairments would need to be able to lipread during the deliberation process.

Under the changes, interpreters will be contractually bound to a confidentiality agreement, stipulating their obligation to remain impartial at all times and not to divulge any discussions that take place in jury rooms. It builds on a range of provisions in place to ensure accessibility for jurors with disabilities, including making sure wheelchairs can be properly positioned to view proceedings, and allowing the use of assistance dogs and braille cards.

Meanwhile, a £1bn modernisation of courts and tribunals is underway, seeking to boost the use of technology, upgrade systems, and ensure it better responds to the needs of the public. It comes as hundreds of millions is being invested to tackle the impact of the pandemic on the courts and deliver speedier justice for victims.

Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Justin Tomlinson said: “I am committed to making sure disabled people can participate fully in society and this announcement is a key step forward in achieving that ambition. Our upcoming National Strategy for Disabled People will build on this, looking across government at how we can unlock opportunities to positively impact the lives of disabled people now and in the future.”

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