Opinion

The Government’s justice bill gives deaf people more rights, but still, we must oppose it

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill finally allows Deaf jurors to have a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter in the deliberation room, but this same proposed legislation threatens our right to protest – we must fight against it.

A lot can change in a week. On Monday, myself and other members of the deaf community rejoiced at the news that finally, after years of campaigning on the issue, BSL users would be able to serve on a jury, in a significant exemption to the controversial, so-called ‘13th juror’ rule.

We had the PCSC Bill to thank. A significant overhaul of four major pillars of the justice system, it’s easy to view this good news for the deaf community in isolation, disregarding the remainder of the almost 300 pages laying out new regulations in this vitally important area.

After reading Section 164, if one then scrolled many pages up to Section 59, they would see a far more troubling proposal:

“A person commits an offence if […] the person’s act or omission […] causes serious harm to the public or a section of the public.

“An act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person […] suffers serious distress, serious annoyance [or] serious inconvenience.”

The ambiguity should alarm us all. A single act under this proposed regulation could be deemed illegal simply because another person deems it annoying or inconvenient. A rule based on feelings – which is so individualistic – would only mean that the police would have to take another person’s word for it. A crime is a crime because one person said so.

The ramifications of a regulation which essentially bans a demonstration because it’s annoying to someone is devastating. It’s why, as a deaf community, we must not support the short-term win of judicial rights at the expense of the long-term right to protest.

We must challenge it at every point of its inevitable progress through Parliament – thanks to the Conservatives’ majority in the Commons.

The reasons could not be more compelling. I think back to the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign’s gathering in Parliament Square last year, when supporters congregated to mark the end of Lynn Stewart-Taylor’s Deaf Walk. The group then proceeded to march on Downing Street to make clear their demands for a BSL interpreter at the Government’s coronavirus briefings.

All it would have taken is one person complaining that they were inconvenienced or annoyed by the actions of a passionate group of Deaf campaigners for their protest to face tougher restrictions. The point of a demonstration – which is, to highlight a perceived injustice – would be eliminated completely.

To give another example, courtesy of Ann Jillings on Twitter: the recognition of BSL in 2003 came as a result of pressure from deaf campaigners. I have no doubt that the same applied 12 years later when it came to the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015.

Now, as the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign continues, and we look to secure a BSL Act for England, we need the hard-fought right to protest to be available to us to make the case to the UK Government.

The PCSC Bill looks to create a completely sanitised view to protests which is simply unobtainable. After all, change is never convenient, nor has it ever come about by asking nicely.

The rights of deaf people were secured based on our right to protest. If we wish to progress even further in this area, then this sacred right must be protected.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has its second reading in the House of Commons tomorrow.


Photo: tbz.photo/Flickr.

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