Equal Before the Law?

Equal Before the Law?

I am Dr Alan M. Blacker, I used to be a solicitor advocate, which for those unfamiliar with the title, I previously had all the powers of a solicitor which was my underlying qualification and I had done the extra advocacy training to appear in the senior courts like a barrister. I started a charity in 2000 to help people with free advice and signposting to specialists. This became a registered charity about five years ago. JAFLAS, which provides free advice and legal representation for people who have been left behind by the cuts to legal aid, so people fighting to keep their homes, jobs and to get some kind of justice out of disastrous situations. I also previously represented people charged with criminal charges, but who could not get legal aid or who needed a specialist. I provided all of these services for free and receive no remuneration whatsoever.

My regulator, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, asked me to provide evidence of some of my qualifications because they doubted my entitlement to use them. Naturally, it was easy to send evidence of my qualifications but the accusations kept coming thick and fast. I was accused of not being entitled to practice in the higher criminal courts, despite a written confirmation from the body accusing me that I had passed the exams and had qualified! I even had certificates produced by the SRA and proof that I had passed the exams and fulfilled the criteria.

This eventually led to a formal tribunal hearing. Listed in London, I was unable to attend and asked for the hearings to be in Manchester, as they had offices in Manchester. I asked for this under section 19 of the Equality Act 2010. This means they have to make a reasonable adjustment to accommodate my disability. They are also governed by the Equal Treatment Bench Book, for courts and tribunals which lays out dozens of things they should do to help.

They refused to hold the tribunal hearing nearer to me. They struck me off in my absence and refused a rehearing.

I was approached very kindly by Dr Anton Van Dellen of Goldsmith Chambers as he felt I had been badly done to and being struck off was not the proper outcome of the tribunal, especially as I couldn’t attend. I recall I had provided five separate letters from my medical practitioners and they discounted each one.

The upshot is that I am at the Court of Appeal, appealing the decision because we feel the venue of the tribunal and setting it down is a merely administrative issue, not a judicial action. The SRA is hiding behind the judicial exemption from the Equality Act saying that listing the matter and considering venue are judicial matters and thereby covered.

We say, that if the SRA is right, no court or tribunal is duty bound to consider disability issues when listing or setting the venue for a hearing and that is clearly against all the advice to tribunals and courts in the Equal Treatment Bench Book, which goes into really strong advice about making courts accessible.

All I have asked for is that the tribunal hear the case in Manchester, and they have refused, twice. I have been to the High Court and the court held that the venue is a judicial matter and covered by the exemption. We don’t agree and we are now awaiting a decision from a single Lord or Lady Justice of The Court of Appeal asking them to see reason. Can you imagine being summonsed to a court you cannot attend? Being found guilty in your absence and spending over a year fighting just to get a fair hearing? If this goes badly that could be the case for every disabled person in the country, which is why this case is so vital and important.

By Dr Alan M. Blacker

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