UK Web sites face new accessibility rules

Companies providing services online are subject to new accessibility laws, following the publication of a Code of Practice. Lawyers expect a test case soon

A Code of Practice addressing discrimination against people with disabilities in the UK has removed some of the uncertainty surrounding Web site accessibility, but it does not go far enough, say lawyers, and the issue is now likely to be settled in court.

Until now there has been ambiguity over the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, because the wording of the Act does not specifically mention Web services. The Code of Practice makes it clear, however, that any company providing services through a Web site has the same responsibilities as a company providing services any other way. "An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its Web site," said the Code. "This is a provision of a service and is subject to the Act."

The trouble is, though, that the Code of Practice does not specify how a Web site should be made accessible. Guidelines for Web site accessibility are provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and suggest measures such as providing alternative text for graphics, but the Code of Practice does not specifically refer to the W3C guide.

Struan Robertson, editor of law Web site Out-law.com, and a solicitor with city law firm Mason's, said the issue has never been tested in the UK courts, and until it is, there will be uncertainty. "If the disability rights commission endorsed W3C standards then there would be a benchmark to meet," said Robertson. His advice is that companies meet what is called Level A of the W3C standards. "That is something that businesses could follow and so be safe in the knowledge that they are complying with the Act." But, he cautioned, it is not a legal standard.

Robertson said he expects a test case to be brought against a non-compliant site in the UK courts soon.

The Code of Practice is available here, and the W3C guidelines are here.


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