11th June 2020

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published its findings from a recent inquiry into whether the criminal justice system treats disabled people fairly.

The equality watchdog says the system is not systematically recognising the needs of disabled people, meaning defendants and accused people risk not being able to participate properly in the legal process.

The inquiry was UK-wide with SCCJR’s Dr Caitlin Gormley contributing to the Scottish element of the research, report findings and recommendations.

She said: “We know that there are inequalities in the criminal justice system, but this inquiry is a stark reminder of the urgent need for reform to ensure that justice is inclusive and transparent for all. Access to justice is essential for any criminal justice system to work effectively and from the findings we know that that isn’t the case for many disabled people.

“We found that disabled people and people with mental health conditions often navigate complex and stressful pre-trial criminal justice processes without any support at all. Inaccessible written information and complex legal jargon in court can further exclude and disadvantage people with learning disabilities, neurodiversity, and mental health conditions.”

Dr Gormley said: “These barriers need to be systematically removed for this group to participate more effectively and for the justice system to be more inclusive.”

The findings also suggested an overrepresentation of people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions within the system that the government has failed to document, that those accused aren’t routinely provided with adjustments they need to participate in the justice process and that too many legal professionals do not have adequate training to identify or offer appropriate support to people with impairments.

Prof Nicholas Watson, Director of the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research also contributed to the inquiry.

Alongside its findings, the report makes a series of recommendations to the UK and Scottish Governments and relevant agencies. In Scotland, the Scottish Government should:

  • Agree a long-term aim of a health-led screening and assessment process;
  • Create a system that will ensure appropriate collection and sharing of information on identified needs and recommended adjustments across health, social work and justice;
  • Introduce its own registered intermediary service for disabled accused; and,
  • Review the use and effectiveness of current vulnerable witness provisions available to a vulnerable accused.

In addition to the report, the EHRC also published an interim report about the use of virtual hearings with disabled defendants through video conferencing used in the court system in England and Wales.

The report also highlights the timely appeal for remote court appearances under the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, though raises concerns about the additional participatory barriers and challenges created through the use of technology.

You can read the full Inclusive Justice report, ‘Does the criminal justice system treat disabled people fairly?’ on the EHRC website along with their news release.


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