6 March 2015

Policing and prosecuting disability hate crime

Last month, I co-chaired a conference on disability, equality and human rights in the criminal justice system, in Leeds (presentations are available here). The conference was designed to tease out implications for policing and prosecuting in the UK. There were lots of interesting presenters.

Source: Birmingham Mail

Martin Goldman, Chief Crown Prosecutor for Yorkshire and Humberside, explained that one of his roles is to cater for disabled victims of crime. He explained the two tests which are considered before deciding to initiate a criminal prosecution: is it more likely than not that someone will be convicted if we prosecute them? If yes, then is it in the public interest to proceed with a prosecution? For a disability hate crime, it is almost inevitably in the public interest to prosecute.

Disabled victims are catered for in the justice system. There’s a Victim’s Code which includes making a victim’s personal statement (a victim can go to court to explain to the judge, or it can be read out, or if they want to make a statement at all). It sets out how victims should be informed about progress through the process. And it sets out how vulnerable victims (e.g. victims of disability hate crime) are to receive services on a faster track. There are Witness Care Units to keep contact with victims. The CPS has guidance on victims with mental heath issues, with pointers for credibility. One method is through ‘special measures’ which prosecutors can apply to the court to use screens, TV, and presenting evidence through different ways such as through an intermediary. The CPS is doing a ‘Consultation on Draft CPS Guidance on Speaking to Witnesses at Court’: it closes on 15 March so hurry up and submit your thoughts!

There was an interesting discussion about whether “hate crime” is a useful concept at all. Opponents say discrimination is not just about “hate”, and raise the idea that criminalising nasty people’s words may increase intolerance.

In the UK, hate crimes are defined in the first instance through the eyes of the victim: if the victim reports their experience as a disability hate crime, it will be pursued as a hate incident even if the prosecutor cannot prove that the crime was motivated by disability. A conviction for disability hate crime, however, needs proof that the defendant was motivated by disability. If someone burgles a house which just happens to be occupied by a disabled person then it’s a burglary of a disabled person’s home, but not a disability hate crime. This is set out in Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allows for an uplift in sentencing because of the aggravated hate element.

Martin pointed out that in 2014 there were 26 disability hate crimes were prosecuted (out of 65,000 prosecutions) in West Yorkshire. He said that this was an incredibly low number: “We’re not getting the cases through that we should be,” he said. “Our prosecutions have around an 85% prosecution success rate, but we don’t have many cases.” It is estimated that across West Yorkshire, the number of disabled hate crimes reported compared to the number which exist is one in thirty. “This is equally as worrying,” noted Martin. People are not reporting disability hate crime and he characterised this as “the biggest challenge in the criminal justice system in the field of disability”. He posited two explanations. First, disabled people don’t recognise that a disability crime has been committed against them. And second, any agency (a health worker, a carer, a neighbour) can report a crime, but they don’t use this opportunity.

In her presentation, Beverly Adams from the West Yorkshire Police admitted straight off that the police need to better engage with people with disabilities to make police information more accessible and anticipate different needs. Her force is working to enhance the support mechanisms for victims, witnesses and offenders entering the criminal justice system. The police are responding to the report ‘Living in a Different World’ by establishing an Equality Delivery Model, with interventions at each point of what seems to be a massive bureaucracy: strategic decisions trickle theoretically down to “scrutiny panels” at the district level. These review how police are driving forward particular themes such as hate crime, stop and search, domestic violence and so on. Mark Cutter from the Disability Hate Crime Network added a third potential explanation, namely that disabled people don’t necessary have “disability” in the front of their minds when then become victims of crime.

Sarah Woodin is a social scientist from the University of Leeds whom I had the pleasure of working with two years ago. Sarah gave a fascinating presentation on access to supports for disabled women who have experienced violence, drawing data from a large project and offering some insightful implications for policing and justice. She pointed out that women with disabilities face a two to three times higher incidence of violence compared with non-disabled women. She divided these crimes into three clusters: hate crime, sexual violence, and institutional abuse. In the latter category there is much “impairment-related violence” such as deliberately over-medicating the resident, removing mobility aids as punishment, refusing to help with personal care, and so on. (I was thinking that Uganda offers some more examples). On the positive side, Sarah emphasised that the women who she and colleagues spoke to wanted to note the progress and improvements in policing of crimes against women with disabilities in recent decades.

That said, many women do not report crimes, and Sarah did a wonderful job setting out some of the deterrents. Most women in the research did not report abuse to police and the reasons include the same ones that all women face: fear of reprisals, of not being believed, of the police. In addition to those, some women with disabilities:

  • do not realise crimes have been committed against them because they consider violence to be part of normal life;
  • are fearful of not being recognised as competent;
  • are afraid of having children taken away (if the violent husband/partner is removed women with disabilities said they would not be able to bring up their children);
  • are terrified of being placed in an institution, by being labelled as “unable to cope” by reporting violence. Of concern is that there is a lack of accessible housing stock in the community, so an accessible residential institution becomes the default option;
  • are not provided with interpreters. This is a concern especially for Deaf women. Sarah told us of ridiculous cases where the alleged perpetrator was asked to interpret for the women who reported abuse, and another where the women’s children were asked to interpret an allegation of abuse by their father.


Finally, throughout the day there was a discussion about “vulnerability”, a word we tend to avoid using at MDAC because we believe that that people with disabilities are not vulnerable per se, but are often placed into situations where they are rendered more vulnerable to abuse than other people. Criminal justice systems which view disabled women as vulnerable may inadvertently lead to overprotection rather than prosecution of perpetrators. Do we safeguard women or focus on prosecution? The prevailing opinion was that focusing on one alone was not a good idea.

Many thanks to my good friend Anna Lawson for inviting me, and to Lord Colin Low for being such a fun co-chair and sending me running round the room with the microphone.