‘Right to fair trial undermined for disabled and child defendants’

The treatment of child defendants and adult suspects with learning disabilities in court is in breach of their human rights according to a report released today by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report, based on interviews with 154 prisoners with learning disabilities, said they were routinely unable to understand and participate in criminal proceedings. A third of those interviewed said simpler language would have helped with this.

It said this breached defendants’ right to a fair trial, under article six of the European Convention of Human Rights. It also said that it was in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act which imposes a duty on public bodies to provide an equal and accessible service.

Co-author of the report Jenny Talbot said there had been progress in supporting disabled people in the criminal justice system but it had not helped defendants. She said: “The work that has gone on with victims has been right but the lack of attention on defendants has been wrong.”

For instance, while vulnerable adult and child witnesses are entitled to a range of ‘special measures’ to aid their evidence – including being able to give evidence via a video link or an intermediary – vulnerable defendants have no such right.

The report said there was a lack of liaison and diversion schemes to divert vulnerable children and adults away from the courts and into social care settings, where appropriate.

It also criticised the lack of available training in understanding learning disabilities and children’s rights for professionals within the criminal justice system, which disadvantaged defendants from both groups.

The lack of any system to identify defendants with learning disabilities also contributed to the failings.

The report’s recommendations included:-

• For vulnerable defendants to receive the same level of support as vulnerable witnesses in courts.

• Greater training for staff to identify and work with defendants with learning disabilities.

• Widespread use of liaison and diversion schemes to help the courts identify defendants with learning disabilities, advise on their needs and refer them to services where appropriate.

• For the government to revive an as yet unfulfilled 2003 pledge to provide a pack for young defendants, providing clear information on the criminal justice process.

Government response

In response to the report, a spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Courts Service said: “The government is committed to ensuring that the needs of all defendants are taken into account when they appear in court.”

She cited the government’s recently-published action plan in response to Lord Bradley’s report into people with mental health needs and learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, adding: “The plan aims to improve the overall well-being of offenders with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system by making sure their needs are identified quickly, by providing them with accessible materials, and by helping front-line professionals  develop the skills and knowledge so they can manage offenders with learning disabilities more effectively.”

“In relation to young people, HMCS and the Youth Justice Board have recently published a leaflet which sets out in plain English what young people can expect when they go to court and tells them what to do. We will of course study the report further and are pleased that it acknowledges the progress made to date.”

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