disability and the criminal justice system

In June 2020 the EHRC published the report of its inquiry, Inclusive justice: a system designed for all. The inquiry, carried out under s16 of the Equality Act 2006, makes for depressing reading. Among the Commission’s findings were that “Many defendants or accused people with a cognitive impairment, mental health condition and / or neuro-diverse condition struggled to understand the language used in the criminal justice system”, and many of those who gave evidence to the EHRC “said they did not understand everything they were charged with, and understood only some or none of what the judge said during their hearings”. The report states that “The court reform programme for England and Wales specifically refers to designing a system around the people who use it, and accessibility is one of its three core principles. Yet, our evidence suggests that opportunities to design digital court systems to be more accessible in England and Wales have been missed. Data about the needs of defendants with cognitive impairments, mental health conditions and / or neuro- diverse conditions was not gathered or taken into account when these policies and systems were put in place”.

The EHRC reported that impairments were regularly missed and, even when they were known about by some professionals, information often went unshared and necessary adjustments were not made. Intermediaries, who are trained to facilitate communication, are available only to non-defendant witnesses. The report concluded that video hearings were “not suitable for people who need support with communication – poor connections cause important information to be missed”, and they could “cause disconnection and separation from people and legal process”. This, as the foreword to the report acknowledged, is of “critical relevance” in view of the Covid-19 influenced expansion of virtual hearings.