LEGAL CLINIC: Design ramifications

The recent decision by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) in the case of Maguire v SOCOG will have significant consequences for the development of e-commerce.

Mr Maguire, who is legally blind, alleged that SOCOG had breached the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 because he could not access the Web site at www.olympics.com. The Commission found that the Web site breached the Act because the technology that Mr Maguire used to access the Internet did not allow Mr Maguire to interpret some of the information presented on the Web site.

The Commission ordered SOCOG to extensively alter its site, and left open the possibility that if the Web site was not altered before, or during the Olympic Games, Mr Maguire could go back to the Commission to seek damages.

Obviously, there are benefits to commercial Web sites in being accessible to the greatest number of consumers. However, there has to be a trade off between accessibility and the experience of sighted users. Web sites that have all the latest bells and whistles tend to employ technologies that are very visually attractive, but which cannot be reproduced in a form which is accessible to the visually impaired. The decision of the Commission will force many sites to completely review their design, particularly in light of the possibility of damages being awarded if accessibility concerns are not addressed.

The scope of this problem is illustrated by a report produced by HREOC, which showed that a number of Commonwealth Government information Web sites have significant accessibility problems. Although this case has been treated in the media as a SOCOG issue, the implications of the decision are much bigger than SOCOG's Web site.

The results of a Government Online survey released in September revealed that only 57 per cent of Federal Government agencies had Web sites that satisfied the "must-do" checklist provided by the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility guidelines (www.w3.org/WAI/).

Governments, Internet Web site developers and their clients must consider methods of ensuring that accessibility principles are taken into account in the design and implementation. It's not enough for the client to rely upon the expertise of the designer. It is likely that any legal action will be commenced against the owner of the Web site, rather than the designer. Some accessibility issues can be easily dealt with if they are considered in the design phase, and clients should ensure that their designers know how to implement them. For more complex applications, the choice is whether to go leading edge and risk legal action, or to keep things simple and risk appearing out of date. The choice just got harder to make, or perhaps easier?

With thanks to Angus Macinnis, solicitor, Barker Gosling. The material contained in this article is no more than general comment. Readers should not act on the basis of this material without professional advice relating to their particular circumstances.

Mark Addison is the IT partner at Barker Gosling Lawyers. Reach him at wma@nsw.bglaw.com.au

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