Anna’s Blog – Learning Disability and the Criminal Justice System
In her blog this week our CEO Anna Lunts looks at how people with a learning disability are treated by the criminal justice system.
People with a learning disability are hugely over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Complex legal processes and jargon are difficult for most people to understand but for people with a learning disability the justice system must feel like an impenetrable maze.
Charities, lawyers and the families of defendants have long been raising concerns about the discrimination people with a learning disability face when they enter the system.
Now, a legal inquiry has been launched by the Equality and Human Rights Commission which will ask if people with mental health conditions, cognitive impairments, autism and ADHD are experiencing discrimination and being put at risk of miscarriages of justice due to a lack of appropriate support.
The inquiry will focus on defendants’ experiences after they are charged and before they reach a trial. This is when critical decisions are made, including what their plea will be, whether they are to be granted bail or kept on remand and whether special measures for trial are made.
It will explore whether defendants’ needs are properly identified and whether adjustments are put in place to ensure they understand what they are charged with and the process they are going through.
As David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:
“The criminal justice system is complex, and people with impairments such as autism and mental health conditions can find it especially difficult to navigate their way through the system. It is essential that criminal justice works fairly for everyone and that anyone accused of a crime is not disadvantaged by virtue of having an impairment. If disabled people’s needs aren’t properly identified from the outset they are at risk of not understanding the charges they face, the advice they receive or the legal process. In some cases, this can mean disabled people could be wrongly convicted or receive inappropriate sentences.”
That is a situation very familiar to John and Tracey O’Neill, whose 20-year old son Harry has a learning disability, autism and suffers from epilepsy. He went through a criminal trial after being accused of assaulting a care home worker.
They told Channel 4 News that court was baffling for Harry: “He didn’t understand the question about his nationality. He didn’t understand the difference between his own defence team and the prosecution,” said John.
“An intermediary was appointed by the court,” added Tracey, “but they had never met Harry before and didn’t really understand that he may possibly need an interpreter and he may well use the wrong phrases and words in the wrong context.”
Harry was convicted but the family immediately appealed. It was then decided he had never been fit to plead in the first place and the conviction was immediately annulled. The whole process took 14 months and caused enormous anxiety for Harry and his family. Had Harry been properly assessed at the outset, and sensible decisions made about his capacity to understand consequences, then this whole distressing episode could have been avoided.
As Tracey expresses so well, Harry was criminalised for having a learning disability:
“Harry’s main difficulty is his autism and the high anxiety due to the autism and the incident stemmed from that behaviour, so he was effectively prosecuted for his autism and convicted by his own learning disability. So if there was more awareness of his disability this case may not have got as far as it did.”