How the Brexit Could Impact Web Accessibility in the UK

October 11, 2017 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: June 3, 2019


The UK’s decision to leave the European Union essentially means that over 40 years worth of treaties, laws, and agreements are subject to renegotiation or nullification. That includes laws regulating web accessibility.

The Brexit is an extremely complicated procedure with a lot of moving parts, and a country has never left the EU before so speculation is difficult. There are still a lot of questions about what the UK will look like post-Brexit that can only be truly answered with time.

One of the main reasons UK voters wanted to Leave the EU was to have a chance at making their own laws again without other EU countries having a say in the process. But, other countries within the UK voted to remain in the EU and are debating whether it is still worth it to even remain in the UK. Additionally, EU case law can no longer be referenced in UK courts after March 2019.

So, in short, the future of web accessibility in the UK is looking divergent and slightly unpredictable at best, and geographically fractured at worst.

How the UK’s Legal Environment Will Change

Prime Minister Theresa May officially triggered Brexit by enacting Article 50 in March of this year, meaning the UK will officially leave the EU in two years, on March 29, 2019.

At that time, the European Court of Justice will no longer have jurisdiction over Great Britain and Northern Ireland. UK courts will be allowed to refer to EU case law up until March 29, 2019, but any decisions made by EU courts after that will have no legal impact in the UK. This comes at a difficult time for web accessibility advocates in the UK especially with so much new web accessibility legislation coming out of the EU.

The Great Repeal Bill, or the EU Withdrawl Bill, which was introduced by the UK Government after Article 50 was enacted, states that all EU laws will be copied into UK law the day after the exit is official. After that, however, those laws will be subject to keep, amend, or repeal in all UK countries which raises the question of whether web accessibility laws in the UK will remain unchanged.

EU Directive 2016/2102 at Risk of Repeal

EU Directive 2016/2102 was passed in October of 2016. It introduces accessibility requirements for public sector websites and mobile applications and requires member states to officially monitor compliance with to those standards.

The deadline for member states to transpose the text of the directive into their national legislation is September 23, 2018 — about 6 months before the UK formally leaves the EU. This does not protect the directive, however, from repeal in either England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

Although the UK does have some pretty progressive accessibility laws, a lack of monitoring and enforcement of those laws has drawn attention from advocates in the UK. So, hopefully, with continued support for accessibility monitoring, this law will remain unchanged or transform into something even better post-Brexit.

UK Might Miss Out on Potential “European Accessibility Act”

The European Commission, the legislative body of the EU, is currently considering a directive that has come to be known as the European Accessibility Act.

The Act “aims to improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services by removing barriers created by divergent legislation.” So, essentially the law seeks to negotiate, consolidate, and harmonize accessibility requirements across EU countries as they apply to web products and services to benefit more people with Disabilities in the EU. The law would apply to products and services including computers, smartphones, TV equipment related to digital television services, audiovisual media services such as television broadcast and related consumer equipment, e-books, and e-commerce platforms, products, and websites.

The proposed Act is currently making its way through EU legislation and it is unclear exactly when or if it will be passed. However, if the UK chose not to keep the European Accessibility Act in its post-Brexit government, or if the law passes after March 29, 2019, consumers and producers of accessible goods and services in the UK will miss out on the potential practical and financial benefits of standardized accessibility requirements for technology across the EU.

Uncertainty Posed by Potential Independence Referendums within the UK

Whether national governments within the UK decide to amend or repeal laws extracted from the EU via the Great Repeal Bill is one level of concern regarding web accessibility.

Another, though less of an immediate or even a definite matter at this point, is the concern of uncertainty that separatist movements within the UK pose towards the status of current UK accessibility laws. In theory, if either Scotland or Northern Ireland were to leave the UK after leaving the EU, both EU and UK accessibility laws will come under scrutiny in the new governments and judicial bodies formed.

While 52% of total UK voters chose to Leave the EU, 62% of votes from Scotland and 56% of votes in Northern Ireland were to Remain.

In response to the results, there have been talks of independence referendums in Scotland and, less so but still some, in Northern Ireland, which is also seeking a sort of “honorary EU member status” after the UK officially divorces with the EU.

Independence in Scotland?

In 2014, Scotland held an independence referendum to leave the UK but 55% of Scots voted to Remain, largely because they were worried about losing EU member-state status.

In light of the Scots’ popular vote to Remain in the EU, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has proposed a second independence referendum. The referendum will likely be delayed until either 2019 or 2021 due to British opposition to Scottish independence and the Scottish government’s desire to see what the Great Repeal Bill will look like once finalized.

Ultimately, Scotland wants to know whether the UK will be more or less attractive than the EU before making any decisions about a referendum, even though they would have to reapply to join the EU. So, time will tell if web accessibility is at risk of another legislative shake-up in that part of the island.

EU Status in Northern Ireland?

Brexit has aroused a calamity of headaches and debates between government authorities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and even the EU Parliament over the future of Northern Ireland’s EU membership status.

Specifically, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland represents a problem because the South will remain in the EU after the North leaves posing complications for customs, trade, and open travel between the two countries.

In short, the same risks that apply to web accessibility in Scotland apply to Northern Ireland if an independence referendum is held to leave the UK, although it is premature at this point to debate whether that scenario is at all likely to occur because there is not enough support for unification at this time. Although a unified Ireland has historically proved an unlikely achievement, Northern Ireland would, in that case, be allowed to retain EU membership status without having to reapply.

Instead, invested authorities are looking at retaining special EU membership status for Northern Ireland, though many unionists in Northern Ireland don’t like the idea of being any different than the UK. Once again, it’s down to time, continued negotiations and debates between parties involved before more light can be shed on the future of web accessibility in Northern Ireland.

At Least we Have WCAG

Regardless of how the UK looks in the near future, we can hope that the growing influence of WCAG 2.0 as the international standard in web accessibility will inform any future legislation after the fallout from the Great Repeal Bill.

Worst case scenario, a lot of governments in the UK will scrutinize and rewrite laws copied over from the EU, or even the UK. But at least they’ll have something concrete to start with in WCAG.

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