It is notoriously difficult to prosecute service providers for breaches under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (‘DDA') (superseded by the Equalities Act). Prosecutions can only be brought by civil actions (individuals), which are costly, time consuming and potentially a huge financial risk to individuals due to the legal costs involved. However, some state funding is available.
Mrs Pam Hughes, of the Stroud and District Access Group brought The Card Factory to account, under a brave and trailblazing civil prosecution. For that, Mrs Hughes is in our top 10 most inspirational people (who use wheelchairs).
Her Story (from Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers article)…
Disabled wheelchair user Pam Hughes has scored a significant success in her efforts to secure disabled access to an outlet of The Card Factory in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Mrs Hughes, who has MS and a lung condition, and her husband, Phil, are both active members of the Stroud and District Access Group. In 2008, the Group was consulted about a planning application for the conversion of a large retail unit on Stroud's High Street into two separate shops. As the planning application said that level access would be retained, the Group did not object. However, when the shops reopened, and Mrs Hughes visited The Card Factory in her wheelchair to buy cards and gifts for her grandchildren, she found a large step at the entrance and no way of gaining access.
For the next year, Mrs Hughes raised her concerns about the access arrangements with The Card Factory, with her local MP and councilors, with the District Council's planning department, with the building inspector, and even the Minister for Disabilities - all to no avail. As a result, in March 2010, Mrs Hughes began court proceedings in Gloucestershire County Court on the basis that The Card Factory were in breach of their duties as a service provider under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (‘DDA').
Initially, The Card Factory disputed they were in breach of the DDA. However, after an independent disability access expert prepared a Court report about the access problems, the Card Factory agreed to carry out works to the entrance, at an estimated cost of £10,000, restoring level access for disabled people.
Mrs Hughes said:
I fought this because I felt that an injustice had happened by allowing an accessible shop to become inaccessible through refurbishment. Someone had to stand up and be counted so that disabled people are not ignored in the future, and furthermore should not have their independence taken from them.
Mrs Hughes was represented by Gareth Mitchell, a disability law expert from Pierce Glynn solicitors in London. He said:
Although the DDA has now been in force for over a decade, many shops and other service providers remain in breach of the disability access provisions. For service providers, this means taking steps to remove, alter or adjust access problems which exclude or make life very difficult for disabled people.
When problems arise it is always a good idea to try to negotiate with service providers in the first instance. But if this does not work, court proceedings can be a very effective way of ensuring compliance, provided they are commenced within 6 months of the disabled person first noticing the problem. Mrs Hughes' case was funded under the legal aid scheme; but even where legal aid is not available it is usually possible to apply for funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission - so disabled people should not be deterred for acting because of concerns about legal costs."
Trailblazers across the country continue to campaign for better access to local shops and businesses. We saw recently Sheffield Trailblazer David Allen taking the Royal Bank of Scotland to court and winning his case.
Steve Ledbrook South West Trailblazers Ambassador said:
This case truly highlights what it takes to challenge a local business that clearly hasn't considered its duty to wheelchair users. The premises should not have been alterated to make it unaccessible, especially when it was already providing the level access before the change. This was truly unacceptable and gives a perfect example of what can be done if you keep fighting. Proves that things can be achieved with persistence.