Criminal justice system still failing disability hate crime victims

Inspectors say disability hate crimes still very under-reported due to lack of training, understanding and priority across police, prosecutors and probation service.

Hate crime victim David Askew, who was failed by police (Credit: Mark St George/Rex Features)

Criminal justice agencies are still failing victims of disability hate crime because of a lack of understanding, training and prioritisation, inspectors have concluded in a report today.

Despite high-profile cases of criminal justice failings in this area, such as the cases of David Askew (see below) and Fiona Pilkington, police, the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) and the probation service were still failing to treat disability hate crime as seriously as other hate crimes.

Disability hate crimes remained significantly under-reported, which led agencies not to treat them as a sufficient priority, said the report today by the police, probation and CPS inspectorates, and when crimes were reported, they were often not identified as disability hate crimes.

Different definitions of disability hate crime

A disability hate crime is not a specific offence; under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (s146 CJA 2003), a crime will carry a greater sentence if it was motivated by hostility towards disabled people or if the offender demonstrated hostility to the victim based on a disability (or presumed disability). However, confusion was created by the existence of other definitions of a disability hate crime used by police and the CPS, including “any incident which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s disability or perceived disability”.

Inspectors said to improve understanding, the three agencies needed to adopt and publish a single definition of a disability hate crime that is communicated effectively to the public and staff.

Failure to identify disability

Police lacked confidence to recognise less obvious impairments and were often reluctant to ask victims or witnesses if they were disabled for fear of causing offence. Inspectors said disability-awareness training was required for the vast majority of staff, which should involve local disability groups.

The report said these groups and advocates were also vital in encouraging disabled people to report hate crimes, however inspectors found a lack of links between disability organisations and local police officers, making groups feel marginalised.

Third-party reporting centres, which enable people other than victims to report crimes, had been set up by police forces but these had varying levels of success, with only one of the six forces inspected monitoring the level of reports being made.

Identifying offenders’ motivation

The report also found police did not routinely investigate suspects’ motivations in offences against disabled people, only identifying this when obvious, for instance where there had been name-calling. Where further probing was required, motivation was unlikely to be identified, it found.

The report also criticised the CPS for a lack of analysis of disability hate crime issues in its charging reports, saying prosecutors received inadequte instruction on whether to specify in court that an offence had been aggravated by hostility towards disabled people, as defined by s146 CJA 2003. In addition, a quarter of prosecutors interviewed had not had any disability hate crime training and a further 18% had not had any training in the previous two years.

Judges interviewed by inspectors said they had encountered “very few cases” where prosecutors had identified disability hate crime, as defined by s146, meaning this was seldom used.

Lack of support for victims

The report also identified a lack of support for disabled victims of crime. CPS witness care units, who are supposed to carry out assessments of the needs of victims and witnesses, reported that they frequently did not complete assessments due to a lack of time.

Where decisions had been taken by the CPS to stop or alter a charge, letters sent to victims were often of poor quality, inspectors found, with a lack of explanation for the decision and a lack of evidence that the victims’ needs had been considered.

“This report finds that in many ways disability hate crime is the hate crime that has been overlooked,” said CPS chief inspector Michael Fuller. “The criminal justice system must therefore change to provide an improved service for those with disabilities.”

Report methodology

The report was based on inspections of services in Cleveland, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Hertfordshire, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, a review of 61 CPS disability hate crime files, interviews with judges, Victim Support representatives and disability advocates, and a literature review.

Case study: David Askew

David Askew, who had learning disabilities, collapsed and died in 2010 at his home in Hattersley, Greater Manchester, following an altercation with a group of young people, which led South Manchester John Pollard coroner to record a verdict of unlawful death (BBC report). He and his family had suffered years of harassment and antisocial behaviour and reported 88 incidents to police from 2004-10.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission found Greater Manchester Police had failed to recognise and respond to the incidents as hate crime or to consistently identify and respond to the family’s vulnerability.

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