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Why we must keep fighting for our clients.

Employment and Discrimination solicitor Nick Webster reflects on his client's recent victory in a landmark disability discrimination case

Wheelchair user about to take a swim
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Nick is an employment and discrimination lawyer who worked in-house with a trade union before joining Leigh Day. You can follow him on twitter @nwebsternjw
I recently acted on behalf of a man who has primary progressive multiple sclerosis in a claim against the company which owns and manages the freehold to his block of flats. My client wanted the company to make some simple adaptations to the leisure club in the block of flats so that he could access and use its swimming pool, as the other residents were able to do (the pool is accessed via a number of flights of steps which naturally my client had difficulty navigating).

The company refused, and proceedings were issued. Three years later, and seven years after his initial request, the Court found that the company had failed in their duty to provide him with reasonable adjustments to which he was entitled.

I do not want to talk about the importance of this judgment; I instead wish to clear my head over the process involved to get to that point. This case was about my client’s fundamental, basic desire to be able to do something which a lot of us take for granted – it was not to do with money or bringing the house down around those who were alleged to have failed in their legal duties, but simply about being able to use the swimming pool provided for residents. It was not about righting a ‘wrong’ committed by another, in the traditional sense.

My client’s condition is genetic; it is not caused through the fault of others. My client just wants to live a normal life, in as much as he can do. The sad fact is that there are so many people like my client who are marginalised, ignored, labelled or mistreated, and it is all too often very difficult or impossible for them to find respite or a resolution.

At its heart, this case was about common decency, empathy and respect. The legal process has taken my client seven years, three years from the point we became involved; this is unacceptable. Without the support of us and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and our excellent counsel, this case simply would not have happened. Again that is unacceptable.

The cuts made to the legal aid system and funding for the justice system are a disgrace. I used to solely work on cases funded by legal aid and overnight 99% of that casework ceased to have funding. This left hundreds of people without the benefit of legal advice. They still desperately needed it, but were deemed surplus to requirements, their situation and needs unimportant.

For those that don’t know, legal aid came in around the same time as the NHS. Legal aid was described as "one of the great pillars of the post war welfare state". The idea was pretty simple, and the outcome fundamental – free healthcare and free legal advice for those that need it, and cannot afford it. That idea has largely been lost in regard to legal assistance, and feels increasingly at risk for healthcare.

The cuts have continued. Court fees have gone up whilst the court’s resources have declined. My client has a condition which causes brain fog. This makes it difficult for him to engage in complex matters such as legal pleadings, litigious correspondence, and adherence to the strict Court rules necessary to pursue a claim. My client faces a struggle to achieve a level playing field in his normal day to day life; he had no prospect whatsoever of achieving one in the justice system but for the intervention of us and the EHRC. Most individuals in his situation are not so fortunate and simply have to accept their position or take on massive risks to try and achieve which should not require a Court order.

I am extremely proud of my client and the outcome we achieved, and I hope it will be of benefit to others. It makes me sick, however, to know that because the process took so long, and was so taxing on him, his health has deteriorated to the point that the adjustments he needed would no longer help him. There must be changes made to enable people like my client to seek redress without having to face such huge, unnecessary hurdles.

The court system needs to be simplified and brought out of the dark ages, the staff and offices need adequate resources and support, and, most fundamentally, there needs to be an about-turn on legal aid. I consider that there also needs to be a statutory body (as there once was) to conciliate in situations like this in order to enable a swift decision to be made regarding adjustments, and statutory penalties for those who are found to have unlawfully failed to make adjustments.

My outlook is that you should never take for granted waking up in the morning without feeling anxious about the day ahead or the obstacles you may face, and that is the reason I became a lawyer, why I work for Leigh Day, and why I will continue to fight for people like my client.

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