07:00 5 March 2022
Swimmers at Hampstead Heath Ponds braved the cold in their swimsuits outside the Royal Courts of Justice last week, hoping the cost of swimming will be reduced or waived for people with disabilities.
A judicial review to determine whether the City of London Corporation’s (CoLC) charging scheme for swimming in Hampstead Heath bathing ponds discriminates against people with disabilities was heard over two days last week (23 and February 24).
The review was presented by disabled swimmer Christina Efthimiou, who lives in Kentish Town, and supported by the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA).
The 60-year-old, who has been following the case via video link, says the CoLC’s mandatory charging scheme at swimming ponds, introduced in 2020, disproportionately affects people with disabilities.
The CoLC disputes the request.
Lawyer Zoe Lethenthal, representing Ms Efthimiou, told Judge Cotter that the ponds are a ‘unique space’ and there is a ‘real barrier’ posed to users with disabilities.
“The Kenwood Ladies Pond is a unique space in Europe. It has a rich history and a unique atmosphere,” she said.
“It’s not comparable to a leisure center or a swimming pool, or a reservoir in which you can swim.”
Asked by the judge what makes it unique, as elsewhere open water swimming had pricing structures, she said it was a “qualitative difference”.
Ms Lethanthal said a person with a disability is likely to have medical, social and economic consequences in their life and accused the CoLC of failing to monitor the impacts of its pricing structure.
“If you take away the bathing ponds for the claimant, it has a disproportionate effect on them because they need them for the benefits it brings,” she said.
She said a reasonable fee adjustment would be to make bathing free for disabled users, to reduce costs by introducing direct debit or the introduction of a hardship fund which Judge Cotter said was “too discretionary” and a “nebulous concept”.
In her witness statement, 60-year-old KLPA member Ms Efthimiou said the ladies’ pond had become something she relied on mentally, emotionally and physically.
She said the impact of having regular access to the ponds during the week “is huge because I don’t need to take as much pain relief as I used to.”
A lawyer representing the CoLC told the judge that Ms Efthimiou’s claim should be dismissed.
Clive Sheldon QC told the judge: ‘Ticket prices are modest and subsidized by society.
“Fees for disabled swimmers are even cheaper and more heavily subsidized because they incorporate a concession.”
He said the standard price for a single swim is £4.05 and disabled swimmers pay £2.43.
He added that if fees could reduce disabled swimmers’ access to ponds, this was due to financial means rather than disability.
“The mere fact of being disabled does not affect access to the pools. Poverty is not intrinsic to disability,” he said.
“If swimmers with disabilities cannot afford access to ponds, they suffer this disadvantage because of impecuniosity, not disability.”
In response to the claimant’s proposed reasonable adjustment to charges, Mr Sheldon said removing the disability payment would mean a drop in income of up to £60,000.
“Subsidizing more for swimming would mean there would be less money available for other activities,” he said.
Mr Sheldon said introducing a direct debit scheme would entail additional costs and ‘could represent a loss to the charity’.
He added: “It cannot be fair that service providers are required by law to charge lower prices to people with disabilities or other groups with protected characteristics.”
Ms Leventhal hit back saying ‘the ponds were historically free’ and have been for almost 100 years.
She said Hampstead Heath Charity is “a not-for-profit charity committed to inclusion, including financial and physical inclusion”.
“People with disabilities are subject to far higher costs than people without disabilities because not knowing how to swim has consequences,” she said.
Judgment is due in four to six weeks.