Better justice for vulnerable adults: innovative ideas

Research shows that people with learning disabilities are twice as likely to be the victims of crime and yet they struggle to achieve justice.

For example, in 1993 a woman with Down’s syndrome was raped in a care home in Derby by a care worker. Even though the police and crown prosecution service believed her she was considered “too handicapped” to be a reliable witness.

However, her parents and many others fought to have the case heard. They succeeded. She gave her evidence from behind a screen and the judge removed his wig so as not to frighten her. These things are now part of the “special measures” in the Youth Justice & Criminal Evidence Act 1999. The care worker was sent to prison.

Things have changed for the better over recent years. The following are three of the latest ideas:


A small pocket-sized guide is set to make a big difference to the lives of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and victims. The guide is the result of a partnership between the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), three learning disability charities (Voice UK, Respond and the Ann Craft Trust) and joint sponsors the University of Derby and Home Farm Trust. It gives each of the 170,000 front-line police officers information on how to identify and help those witnesses and victims who need extra assistance in giving evidence.

“One of the major problems we’ve found in the police service as the gateway to the criminal justice system is that our officers on occasion fail to identify vulnerable witnesses when they first report the crime,” says Richard Crompton, deputy chief constable, Lincolnshire Constabulary and Acpo’s lead on vulnerable adults and vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. “And that’s the critically important time because if we can prompt them in the right direction to either special measures or to some form of specialised support, we can help make sure we get their best evidence.”

A vulnerable witness has the same rights as everyone else and they should be treated equally, says equal access to justice worker, Daniel Hardy, who has a learning disability. “People like me have been treated badly in the past. It is wrong to make assumptions about us. We have come a long way since we were thought of as incompetent and unreliable. Well, we aren’t.”

Crompton agrees that police are not highly trained in working with vulnerable people. “They have an element of training in this area but, of course, when they are out on the street with everything else going on, any help is important. So this guide has been circulated to every police officer in the country – to keep with their warrant card – which hopefully will mean we will make the right decisions more consistently.”


What do you think?

Sue Mulcahy, adult advocacy/development officer, National Autistic Society:

“This guide provides a key to overcoming the sorts of difficulties that often arise when vulnerable people become witnesses to crime.

“For example, people on the autistic spectrum have conditions which are ‘invisible’. This can create two distinct problems first, it can restrict their access to the criminal justice system because their vulnerabilities can easily go unrecognised and, second, it can make it very difficult for them to communicate effectively with police officers despite their evidence being potentially invaluable in bringing a case to justice.

“People with autistic spectrum disorders often notice things that other people tend not to and this can make their evidence crucial.

“This guide should help them and all vulnerable witnesses to access and engage with police services and, in turn, the criminal justice system more effectively.”


Few picture books are available for adults or adolescents who cannot read or who have difficulty reading. Fewer still address the emotional aspects of difficult events like the Books Beyond Words series.

The latest edition, Supporting Victims, follows the story of Polly – a young woman with learning disabilities who has been the victim of assault. The man she accused is arrested and Polly is asked to be a witness at the trial. The story shows how the police help her to choose the special measures she needs to give her best evidence in court.

The authors – Sheila Hollins (professor of psychiatry of learning disability at St George’s), Kathryn Stone (chief executive of Voice UK) and Valerie Sinason (director of the Clinic for Dissociative Studies) – are leading national experts.

A supporting text is provided at the back of the book, giving an interpretation of what is taking place. Guidelines are also provided for carers, supporters and professionals. There is also a list of useful resources and organisations that may help.


What do the critics think?

Viewpoint (Mencap’s magazine): “This series has established the highest reputation for tackling complex and difficult issues, clearly, compassionately and with considerable skill.”

British Journal of Learning Disabilities: “The excellent Books Beyond Words series encourages client empowerment in a dynamic way.”


Too often in the past people who have difficulty communicating (including people with disabilities, mental health needs or children aged under 17) have not been able to give evidence and as a result criminals have not been brought to justice.

The intermediary scheme is an attempt to put this right. An intermediary is someone whom the court approves to communicate to the witness the questions that the court, the defence and the prosecution teams ask, and to communicate the answers that the witness gives in response. They can also provide communication assistance in the police investigation stage.

The scheme was piloted in six areas but has now been extended to include Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Stephen Cummins, project officer, Office of Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), says: “Intermediaries are not an advocate, appropriate adult, expert witness or witness supporter – they’re there as a communication aid.”

Indeed, an intermediary is an officer of the court and will be appointed at the discretion of the judge. “Their report will guide the court, judge or practitioners as to what ways and means would be best to maximise and ensure that they will be able to give their best evidence,” says intermediary project manager, OCJR, Louise Selby. “This might be suggesting regular breaks or perhaps telling court advocates how to word or phrase questions.”

An intermediary carries out a detailed assessment of the witness and then puts together a report on what help may be needed. To date over 600 witnesses have been supported by intermediaries. “We are averaging over 30 referrals a month which shows the scheme is gaining popularity – and that there’s a need for it,” adds Cummins.

Each one of the 120 registered intermediaries in the UK (and recruitment is ongoing) is selected for their specialist skills and experience. To date they include speech and language therapists, psychologists, teachers, health professionals, children’s guardians and social workers.

Judge John Wait, resident judge at Derby Crown Court, says: “There is an enthusiasm from all the judges in Derbyshire for the use of intermediaries. Indeed, so much so that we used intermediaries in three cases before they were even formally available to us.”

What do you think?

Amanda McLellan, an intermediary:
“I am delighted to have been part of a scheme that has done much to improve access to justice for vulnerable people and to give them a voice within the criminal justice process.”

Alison Watts, director of legal services, Derbyshire Criminal Justice Board:
“Justice for all should mean just that – not just for those who are easy to interview.”

Contact the author
Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 21 June issue under the headline “In the cause of justice…



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