Law: Judging on legal ability rather than disability: Sharon Wallach talks to the woman who chairs the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities about its work

Sharon Wallach
Thursday 20 May 1993 23:02

PEOPLE with disabilities have for a long time found themselves isolated in the battle against discrimination. But, increasingly, society at large is championing their cause.

In 1989, the Law Society carried out an exercise to determine whether disability was an important issue in the solicitors' profession. The response suggested that it was, and the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities (GSD) was born.

Its fourth and latest chairman is Anne Luttman-Johnson, who works for the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA). In her year of office, she hopes to build on the GSD's existing relationship with the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG).

'The links are interesting because the TSG is the profession of the future,' she says. 'I am keen to encourage disabled people to come into the profession because it is something they can do on a par with anyone else.' In 1984, Ms Luttman-Johnson was involved in a road accident which broke her back and left her a wheelchair user. She had just completed a degree course in law and politics at Oxford Polytechnic and was heading towards a career in law. After a year off to recover from the accident, she took up her place at the College of Law in Guildford to study for the Law Society finals.

She took articles and later qualified at the Godalming, Surrey, office of Penningtons, where she specialised in private client work. Then she decided to move to London. 'I also wanted to use my knowledge of disability in a productive way,' she says.

Her job as legal claims officer at the SIA was created for her two-and-a-half years ago. 'I help our members get compensation for their injuries, most of which happen in traumatic circumstances,' she explains.

Some 39 per cent of the 700 spinal chord injuries recorded each year arise from road accidents. 'These, and industrial accidents, are the most likely to receive compensation. The hardest ones to help are falls at home and sporting accidents,' she says.

'My job is to put people in touch with specialist solicitors. I don't have the facilities or the back-up here at the SIA to handle claims myself.'

She considers her work a complementary service to that available from the specialists, offering emotional support and being 'someone to sound off to'. She also believes that she is more approachable; many people are overawed by the legal aura. 'Although I am a solicitor, I am also disabled and I work for their charity,' she says.

Her work also involves helping outside solicitors quantify claims, analyse costs - of the aids that the injured person will need and so on - and commission expert reports, including non-medical matters such as, for instance, architects' advice on the cost of adapting a house.

'It's important to monitor what is going on,' she says. 'I respond to developments in the Law Society, the Law Commission and Parliament, and I spoke at the recent action day on legal aid, because the cuts will have a huge impact on our members.'

She has been involved with the GSD from the beginning. 'People are really paying attention to us now,' she says. 'Disability is becoming more of an issue in society as a whole. Attempts to legislate against discrimination are not going to die away.'

Anti-discrimination will be the theme of the group's first formal presence at the Law Society's annual conference. Together with the Society's employment law committee and the Industrial Law Society, the GSD is planning a fringe meeting for the conference, to be held in Brighton in the autumn.

Sadly, discrimination does exist within the profession. 'A lot of it comes about through ignorance and preconceived notions. People grow up with the idea that disabled people can't do as much, and they think only of the limitations. 'Yes, it is difficult to be a litigation lawyer if you are a wheelchair user, but you can always specialise in something else.'

All kinds of disabilities are represented in the profession. Disabled people realise their own limitations and work out their own ways of dealing with them, Ms Luttman-Johnson says, and it is patronising for employers and others to assume otherwise. The problem is not helped by the media, she believes. A lot of appeals - she cites Children in Need for one - are 'based on pity and display a highly patronising attitude to disabled people'. Things are getting better, though, partly through the efforts of groups like the GSD.

In the legal profession, the incidence of discrimination is heightened by the general economic difficulties. 'With the shortage of jobs, employers are asking why they should take on someone on whom they need to spend money, adapting office space and so on,' Ms Luttman-Johnson says.

Another stumbling block is that many solicitors, particularly the smaller firms, work in inaccessible buildings. 'So disabled people begin with the disadvantage of being limited in whom they can apply to for a job in the first place,' she says. Many premises, including courtrooms, need not be that expensive to make them accessible, she suggests. 'Most places have some sort of programme of redecoration. It's not going to cost a huge amount if it is incorporated in the programme.'

Anne Luttman-Johnson worries about the profession as a whole. 'I am very concerned about what is going to happen in five years' time,' she says. 'There is such a real shortage of jobs and trainees are going away from law. When the recession is over, there will be a shortage of solicitors.

'Disabled people are being particularly badly hit. It is expensive to be disabled, and it is expensive to be the employer of a disabled person.'

(Photograph omitted)

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