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According to merit?/Diversity: Addressing disability and justice

According to merit?/Diversity: Addressing disability and justice

By Samantha Gonzales

Courts Disabled Persons Diversity 


Practitioners need to have a good understanding of accessibility resources provided by courts.

Rania Saab is a solicitor with Legal Aid NSW, and in her decade working in litigation she has regularly encountered the challenges facing someone who relies on court accessibility systems. Ms Saab is hard of hearing, one aspect of her identity that informs but does not define her work. She is passionate about creating a more accessible system of justice and her commitment is unwavering, having practised in a government legal centre for 14 years and tirelessly advocated to update court processes and procedures to make the system open and readily accessible to all.

An estimated one in six Australians are affected by hearing loss.1 However, in Ms Saab’s experience, this has not influenced the way court processes unfold. She recounts stories that highlight the inconsistencies of the system and how each experience is shaped by the specific people involved and their unconscious biases. Her experience is, sadly, not unique. She shares the experience of a friend where the court, despite its best efforts, struggled to provide them with the adjustments necessary to participate in a proceeding. “The court didn’t know how to help them and they didn’t know what to ask for.” 

Such examples highlight the need for practitioners to have a good understanding of accessibility resources provided by courts. Ms Saab says the expectation is not for people to have answers, but to be willing to ask questions and to better educate themselves about accessibility resources available. “It’s okay for people not to know. We don’t expect people to know the solutions, but just to say – what is it that you need?” 

The key message to emerge from our discussion is a need for equity. Ms Saab describes the cost of not providing adjustments to the court experience as this: limited access to justice. “For any human being, if you have to go to court for any matter, imagine how stressful it would be. Imagine if you had a disability – how much would that stress be exacerbated by worrying about whether you would be able to have access to the court room?” Justice cannot and should not be tied to whether you or a client is able to hear in the court room. Couched in such terms, the untenability of the situation seems obvious.

She argues that the best means of creating systemic change is to request court adjustments if and when necessary for your client. This involves having a clear understanding of what your client needs and the best way to address these needs. “If you come across a client with a disability, it’s very important to have that conversation with them from the outset about what they need and how we can help them. To be their advocate.” This simple act of asking questions creates a relationship where clients may not have to grapple with the emotional burden of disclosure. This small act of curiosity, in her mind, is the path to being a better ally and advocate.

If you’re thinking about how to make your practice a more inclusive one, keep Ms Saab’s recommendations in mind: ask your client what they need, check to see if the tools and resources provided are adequately servicing your client, and educate yourself about the accessibility resources available in the courts.

Lawyers with disabilities overcome many barriers, and this is only exacerbated for female lawyers or culturally diverse lawyers with a disability. This year, Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) will introduce a Diversity in the Law series to highlight, educate and assist in overcoming the many barriers and stigma faced by lawyers and specifically female lawyers with a disability. Members of the profession are invited to attend and hear from leaders in the profession advocating for the equal participation of people with disabilities in the legal profession. ■

Samantha Gonzales is a VWL Diversity and Inclusion Committee member.

  1. Access Economics, “Listen Hear! The economic impact and cost of hearing loss in Australia” (2006) 9.

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