Human rights watchdog raises concerns over impact of courts reform on disabled people
EHRC also flags up need for more data on impact of remote hearings
Credit: Steve Parsons/PA
Disabled people facing trial are being "failed" by the criminal justice system, the UK's equality watchdog has warned.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said people with learning disabilities, autism and brain injuries have been left "bewildered" by the system as they called for urgent reforms to ensure they are given a fair trial.
The warning comes after a recent EHRC report found the increasing use of video hearings to conduct trials during the coronavirus pandemic had "significantly hindered" communication and understanding for people with disabilities.
The use of remote hearings has become common during the Covid-19 crisis and, while the commission has not called for them to be stopped entirely, it has previously stressed the importance of gathering more and better data on how they impact people’s experience of the justice system.
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In a new report, the watchdog went on call for the government to set out a “clear evidence base” for how the ongoing reform of the courts service – a key pillar of which is increased digitisation – will impact “disabled defendants and address existing barriers” that they face. The report also called for "early and effective screening" to ensure people with disabilities are identified sooner.
EHRC also found that many people with disabilities and mental health issues were not being provided with the adjustments needed to ensure they could properly participate in the legal process. And the watchdog warned that that too many legal professionals lacked the training to deal with disabled victims and defendants.
The commission identified an overrepresentation of people with disabilities in the system because the Government had failed to accurately document the figures.
David Isaac, chair of the EHRC, said the findings proved the system needed a "redesign".
"A non-discriminatory criminal justice system, that everyone can participate in, underpins our society. It stands for democracy, equality and the rule of law," he said. "It should give us all the chance of a fair trial, no matter who we are. But disabled people often face barriers to understanding their situation and making themselves properly understood to others This can result in them feeling bewildered by the system and treated unfairly, which puts their right to a fair trial at risk."
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for HM Courts and Tribunal Service, said: "We work closely with disability groups to ensure we have reduced the barriers that disabled people may face throughout justice system. This includes identifying people who have mental health, learning disabilities, substance misuse or other vulnerabilities at the earliest opportunity, and providing intermediaries to help with remote hearings. We welcome the EHRC’s report and look forward to engaging with them to help improve our provisions further."
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Most department staff have remained onsite during pandemic, although some ‘ad hoc’ arrangements have been made