Is justice taking a beating?

On 20 November last year, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 received
royal assent.ÊSection 146 makes hate crime against people with
disabilities and gay and lesbian people an aggravated offence. In
other words, if an offender demonstrates hostility towards their
victim that is based on their actual or perceived disability,
learning difficulty or sexual orientation, the court will be able
to impose tougher sentences.

This is good news for people with disabilities, including learning
difficulties, and goes some way towards addressing the anomaly that
only racist hate crimes were treated as aggravated offences.
However, more work must be done to overcome the barriers to justice
that the government itself has set up as a consequence of its
attempt to protect people with disabilities from such crimes.

Any self-advocacy group of people with learning difficulties will
tell you their own or others’ harrowing experiences of being
shouted at, spat at, assaulted and harassed because they have
learning difficulties. The first investigation into people’s
experiences of hate crime conducted by Values Into Action revealed
many stories. One woman in Yorkshire said: “We had stones thrown at
our windows and yogurts and bad eggs. They said: ‘people like you
should be put down at birth’.”1

There have been some changes for the better. People have supported
each other when they have been targeted and have trained each other
on how to avoid being attacked and what to do when it happens.
Self-advocacy groups offer each other support and education and
have spent precious funds making videos and running conferences to
raise awareness. Many groups have invited the police to learn how
to support people with learning difficulties to avoid and report
crime. Police forces are beginning to recognise the problem and the
Association of Chief Police Officers is examining its service to
people with disabilities.

However, it is not an entirely positive story. Very few police
services in the UK have developed an effective strategy to identify
and respond to hate crime against disabled people. Those strategies
that do exist are usually led by one or two committed officers who
have to “hand around the begging bowl” in order to fund their
specialist work.

Why does it appear to be so difficult for mainstream criminal
justice agencies to respond effectively to crimes against people
with disabilities? The message that the police need not support
people to take action against offenders but that rather social care
professionals should “protect the vulnerable adult from abuse” is
reinforced time and time again by government policy. A brief
examination of No Secrets’ protection
guidelines,2 reveals that social care has been given the
lead to respond to and ultimately monitor crimes against vulnerable
people. As pointed out by Hughes: “The protection of citizens
against assault, theft and sexual acts is not co-ordinated by
social services departments in respect of society at

An examination of the language used to describe crimes against
people with disabilities shows how hate crimes are underplayed.
Hate crime against a person with a disability is called “bullying”,
“abuse”, or “kids being mean”. These terms mask the assaults,
harassment, criminal damage, thefts and batteries -Êmany times
aggravated by hate -Êthat people with learning difficulties
experience on a daily basis. This wrong labelling exacerbates the
under reporting that is common to all kinds of hate crime and
encourages the victim to change his or her behaviour rather than
supporting them to take action and report the matter to the police.
In some cases victims of constant harassment have had to move home
because nothing has been done to stop them being targeted.

In other words, the safety of people with learning difficulties has
been addressed using a protective approach that often limits their
independence and opportunities for inclusion, rather than
supporting them to take action against the perpetrators through the
criminal justice system. This reluctance to report crime on the
part of victims and to respond on the part of statutory agencies
possibly presents the biggest barrier to people being able to
access the new provisions set out by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Police community safety units have the task of supporting people to
go to court and seek the tougher sentences set out in the act. Many
police forces have set up hate crime units that work very hard to
provide intense and immediate support to victims. However, very few
have experience of supporting people with disabilities and even
fewer have devised plans that will identify and support victims of
hate crimes who have disabilities.

There are technical barriers too. Most police forces have no means
to specifically record crimes against victims who have
disabilities, thus making it difficult to collate statistics in the
first place. It is then crucial that the act is accompanied by a
commitment to research people’s experience and fear of hate crime
as well as to produce guidance about how police services must
record and respond to these crimes.

The police are also under an obligation to uphold article three of
the Human Rights Act 1998, the right “to freedom from torture or
inhuman or degrading treatment”. Commenting on the Human Rights Act
1998, the Department of Constitutional Affairs points out: “There
are indications that severe discrimination based on race may
constitute degrading treatment and this might extend to other forms
of acute discrimination.”4

However, Values Into Action is not aware of an instance where this
obligation has been cited as a reason to build a police strategy
tackling hate crime against people with disabilities. Furthermore,
very few people appear to be aware of their rights under the Human
Rights Act and are therefore unlikely to seek to rely on them when
complaining to the police, let alone in order to take legal action.
In the absence of a dedicated body to promote the human rights
culture that the government envisions, this is unlikely to

The provisions in the Criminal Justice Act give the crucially
important messages to victims, perpetrators and agencies
responsible for identifying and combating hate crime that it is to
be taken as seriously as racist hate crime. The Human Rights Act
gives the message that such treatment is degrading and unacceptable
in today’s society. However, they will simply remain messages if
related measures and guidance are not put in to place.

There is a lot of excellent practice across the UK, which must be
harnessed to inform police strategy as a whole in the same way that
it has been for racist hate crime. Vulnerable adult protection
committees set up by No Secrets must work closely with
community safety units to ensure that victims get the support they
need and that the police get the full picture and take action
against offenders.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, these crimes must be properly
identified so that victims have the option to take action against
offenders to win the tougher penalties that this government has
finally taken on. 

Joanna Perry is project leader, Values Into Action. For
more information contact
or tel:
020 7729 5436


1 Values into Action research Living in Fear,
1999, available free from Mencap

2 Department of Health, No Secrets’ Guidance on
Developing Multi-Agency Policies and Procedures to Protect
Vulnerable Adults from Abuse
, 2000

3 A Hughes “Comment on No Secrets”, in Good Practice
With Vulnerable Adults
. Edited by Jackie Pritchard, Jessica
Kingsley, 2001

4 Department of Constitutional Affairs, Studyguide
to the Human Rights Act 1998
, Second Edition, available

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