Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

A matter of life and death

livinginadifferentworldFollowing last week’s publication of Living in a Different World, consultant editor of Policing Today Philip Mason talks about the criminal justice system’s gradually changing attitude towards society’s most vulnerable people:

This year we’ve started to see a palpable – very welcome – shift of approach across the criminal justice system to certain kinds of ‘vulnerability’.

In January there was the publication of Giving Victims a Voice, the document issued jointly by the NSPCC and the Metropolitan Police outlining the scale of the crimes committed by Jimmy Savile. This identified a failure of his victims across the board, and has subsequently initiated much-needed movement to facilitate victims of sexual crime – child or adult – in coming forward.

Last week we saw the disability hate crime-focused Living in A Different World, issued by three major criminal justice system stakeholders – the Crown Prosecution Service, HM Inspector of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Probation. Not unlike Giving Victims a Voice, Living in A Different World identifies the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed some of the most vulnerable people in society, again with the emphasis on the victims’ interaction with that system.

To reference a statement released by HMIC, regarding the latter crime, inspectors found that many forces have no support mechanism for disabled victims from initial complaint up to the case coming to court. More fundamental than even that however, was an apparent lack of clarity over the nature of the crime itself on the part of prosecutors.

Taking the Savile case on the one hand and the death of Francecca Hardwick on the other as examples of just how wrong things can go, you have to say that it is time for change. While acknowledging that improvement has been made in the area of victim care – certainly on the part of the Force – the criminal justice system has been too insensible an environment for too long.

Regarding disability hate crime, the report puts me in mind of a statement made over year ago by director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer, in which he suggested that the prosecution of disability hate crime would be the ‘next frontier’ for the criminal justice system. In it – as with the victims of sexual crime – he identified a possible reticence to bring cases to court because those cases would rely on evidence given by ‘vulnerable’ witnesses. Just as disturbing, he suggested that, as borne out in the report, that there was indeed confusion on the part of the criminal justice system over the definition of the crime in the first place. (And that often victims didn’t even report it at all because in a culture where discrimination against disabled people is so common, ‘violence’ is almost expected.)

With all this in mind, I would suggest that one fundamental thing that really does need to change is the criminal justice system’s notions of vulnerability itself. The overwhelming hegemony of the ‘medical’ model when it comes to perceptions of disability across society time and again seems to inform attitudes to evidence given by disabled witnesses, as well as how those witnesses are treated as they’re making their way through the system. Or to put it another way, since disabled people are ‘helpless’ they must also be ‘inferior’. And if they’re inferior, their evidence must be inferior too.

Conversely, an equally perverse attitude to vulnerability is the way that it sometimes makes people invisible. We’ve seen this recently for instance in the Southwark Sapphire debacle, which was precipitated by the IPCC’s report that victims of sexual crime were being pressured to withdraw complaints in order to reduce the number of unsolved cases. It’s much easier to see some people rather than others as statistics, and you have to ask – is there any way this could have happened in the investigation of any other serious crime?

As suggested, the criminal justice system is – slowly but surely – taking up the slack regarding the care it gives to vulnerable people. You could argue that in this it’s roughly keeping pace with the rest of society when it comes to attitudes to people that have been marginalised for centuries. There is more at stake here than just identity politics though – this is a matter of life and death.

One truly positive outcome to the report is the subsequent discussion around disability hate crime being given parity with other forms of hate crime. That would be great, but it would also be only the next step on a very long road ahead.

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