By Jon Silverman
Home affairs analyst
Karaoke - singing along to recorded music - is a popular pastime
A publican who barred a group from a sing-along evening may end up facing legal action for discrimination.
A group of 23 men and women went to a pub in north-west London in November 2002, looking forward to taking part in the weekly karaoke evening.
They had been to the same venue the previous month, enjoyed themselves thoroughly and were anticipating more of the same. But on this occasion, the licensee told them they were not welcome because his other, regular, customers objected.
Why - had they been drunk? Had they been abusive? Had they been sick on the upholstered banquettes? No, not at all. Their "offence" was to be born with a learning difficulty which made their presence undesirable.
Such discrimination was made punishable under the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995. The body set up to enforce the legislation is the Disability Rights Commission, which has just celebrated its third birthday, though not to universal acclaim.
See you in court?
The commission was very interested to hear about the case when contacted by a local branch of the charity, Mencap, because pubs have a chequered history when it comes to discrimination against people with learning difficulties.
It is exactly the kind of case we would like to fight to get the message out to pubs and the leisure trade
Its legal committee agreed to back a court challenge if necessary, and a commission lawyer was put in charge of the evidence-gathering.
But the pub concerned is a free house and it appears that the licensee who barred the group has sold up and gone to live abroad. His successor no longer holds karaoke evenings. This may prove an insuperable obstacle to a prosecution.
The commission's Alyson Rose says: "If the person responsible for the act of discrimination has left the country and is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the British courts, this may well be a bar to a prosecution. We are still trying to establish this. But it is exactly the kind of case we would like to fight to get the message out to pubs and the leisure trade generally."
Others are more sceptical. The Mencap manager who first contacted the commission says she was given the strong impression that the initial enthusiasm had cooled and that the case was unlikely to proceed. She is also concerned about the commission's procedures which, she says, are slow and cumbersome.
"If I found it hard to follow the process, imagine what it would be like for someone with learning difficulties," she says.
Simone Aspis does have a learning difficulty and is a former parliamentary and campaigns worker at the self-advocacy group, People First.
"I think the DRC is sometimes shy of pushing equality issues affecting the learning disabled. That's partly because it's within the government machinery and also because it is very much geared towards those with a physical disability rather than a mental one. It needs to do a heck of a lot more in pushing the legislation forward and taking on more cases."
The DRC points to a recent case in which it successfully prosecuted a publican who barred a woman with learning difficulties because she had been skipping on her way in. "We have no qualms about taking legal action where necessary," says Ms Rose.
If the London case doesn't go to court, it will be ironic for some of those involved. Four years ago, they were prevented from attending a karaoke evening at a different pub.
Legal action resulted in financial compensation being paid but the price of the agreement was a ban on publicity. Mencap feared that this might be a short-term gain at the expense of getting the message across about pubs and acts of discrimination. It looks as though they were right.