Are disabled people still disbelieved? Eleven years on from the CJA 2003

2003 was an important year in legislation for disabled people – the disability hate crime law came into being (Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act)

One would have thought that the new law would help disabled people but as we went through the first decade of the 21st Century, it was clear many disabled people just were not believed. This means the UK’s police forces and judicial systems let down, and quite plausibly even made permissible the deaths of many disabled people at the hands of their perpetrators.  

This ‘permitting’ (or perhaps decriminalisation as we should call it, becomes important later on…) 

In 2005 a two page spread in the Observer clearly described the dilemma facing disabled (and deaf) people in being believed by both the police and the courts. This is what the Observer found:

Jack said: “Because we can’t speak, we are at the bottom of the pile. The legal system does not favour three groups: the deaf, the disabled and people who speak a foreign language. When it comes to justice, you know as soon as they give you the label “deaf” you are not going to get a fair deal.”

“There are also many hurdles for the deaf community to overcome within the legal system, because evidence cannot be presented in traditional ways and deaf people can be seen as less credible witnesses.”

Again during 2005 was the Keith Philpott case. He reported to police threats made against his life by a family who claimed he was having an affair with their daughter. He insisted he wasnt. But this was to no avail. The disbelieving police did very little and he was murdered in March 2005 under the pretext that he had been a paedophile.

The death of Steven Hoskin in 2006 revealed yet more failures in the UK’s legal system in its believing of victims who were disabled. Authorities did not grasp the severity of the situation. Many opportunities were missed, giving Steven’s killers the chance to torture, bound and gag him before sending him to his death from the top of a 100ft high viaduct in Cornwall.

2007 was clearly a landmark year for disabled people who faced harassment even violence. Fiona Pilkington had been reporting crimes against her and her son and daughter since 1997 to Leicestershire Police. There were more than 33 of these reports. Practically not one case was heeded by the police. The increasing severity of the attacks led to the desperate situation where she and her daughter died together in a car fire in order to escape the hatred.

The Pilkington case shows that despite having disability hate crime legislation, the police constantly disbelieved her. One would have thought that this would, as many claimed at the time, be a sea change in the field of disability hate crime.

It wasnt ever going to be that.

In 2008 we find that a woman with serious learning difficulties would not get a trial heard against several men who are said to have raped her.

The case was dropped. The reason? The Scottish Crown Office took their advice from experts who advised that the victim would not be a reliable witness.

“We still have some way to go before we can say that people with learning disability are able to access justice on an equal basis to other Scottish citizens.” (Guardian)

The Scottish Office agreed it had to keep up with the English Legal system. But as we have already seen the English one had failed many people, and was about to do so again and again…

Sir Ken MacDonald asserted in 2009 the criminal justice system was failing many disabled people: “It is our duty to give effect to the law which supports the struggle for disabled people to live as full and valued members of society. These offences represent a crude assault on their human rights.”

“When police and prosecutors are presented with cases like these they must explore the facts with the question of disability hate crime firmly in their minds. They must look for evidence and build cases.”

“This is a scar on the conscience of criminal justice. All institutions involved in criminal justice, including my own, share the responsibility.” (Telegraph)

The year 2010 saw another landmark in the disbelieving of disabled victims. Despite a fairly constant stream of reports from as early as 1998, David Askew and his family failed to get Greater Manchester Police seriously committed to stopping the attacks on them and their house in Hattersley. Whats worse is David Askew wasnt seen to be a credible witness because of his disabilities. His death in March 2010 showed the UK just how much behind the times it was in terms of dealing with hate crimes against the disabled.

During 2011 it was found that “People with disabilities in the UK face harassment, insult and attack almost as a matter of routine, while a “collective denial” among police, government and other public bodies means little is done to challenge the situation…”

This amazing situation existed eight years after the 2003 legislation!!

In the eyes of the UK policing and judicial systems, disabled people clearly still remained very much on trial as the Guardian pointed out in 2011:

“Keir Starmer has acknowledged that disabled people lack confidence in the criminal justice system, and that prosecutors have to do their part in reversing that.”

“Starmer admits that the kind of incidents reported by the Guardian where both the police and prosecutors have humiliated disabled people by failing to take them seriously, are part of the problem.” 

The Guardian relates the example of the testimony used by Jim Watts’s lawyers in a court rape trial:  “Watts is challenging the safety of his conviction after he was convicted of sexual assaults on severely disabled women after the victims gave their evidence by blinking or pressing buttons on their wheelchairs to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’. His lawyers are arguing that their testimony is “unreliable”. 

We can see that being disabled takes us many notches down – and then if one has little or no communication this takes disabled victims even more notches down. It means victims end up in a situation where they are forsaken completely by the justice system.

In 2013 we had several cases of hate crime that were not hate crime, but not only that, the victims were not believed until it was too late. The case of Bijan Ebrahimi is one. His many pleas to Avon and Somerset police were ignored. The killing and burning of Bijan in the summer of 2013 brought home the facts. The police had disbelieved Bijan all along and had even given his perpetrators the very oxygen to carry out these final heinous crimes.

One would have thought that the situation would perhaps improve following the Bijan case. But it doesnt. We find in 2014 that rape has effectively been decriminalised (or permitted) by the Metropolitan Police in London for disabled women.

Professor Betsy Stanko is the Met Police’s assistant director of planning. She has been researching the force’s investigation of rape for a number of years. Her researches have found major issues with regards to the Met’s approach to rape:

“These women face almost unsurmountable obstacles to justice,” Professor Stanko says. “Their rape is highly unlikely to carry a sanction, and in that sense, it is decriminalised.”

“Stanko’s research shows that 18% of women who report rape have a mental health issue.  People with mental health issues were 40% less likely to have their case referred to the police for prosecution than people without these difficulties. People with learning difficulties were 67% less likely to have their case referred for prosecution.”

The reason for this claim of decriminalisation is the John Worboys case. Worboys was a London cab driver who preyed on his victims. The first two were women with mental health problems and learning difficulties. He took advantage of both. They reported the crime to the Met Police. However they were not believed because of their disabilities. Worboys, as a businessman carried far more integrity for the disbelieving police, and was allowed to carry on with his business. As a result well over a hundred women were raped, in London and other parts of the British Islands.

Had those two initial victims been more believed (eg had their disabilites not been placed as an equation of doubt in terms of integrity) then John Worboys would have not gone on to find dozens more victims. Clearly the Metrpolitan Police ARE responsible for these rapes.

The stats found by Stanko shows that a high percentage of disabled women were not believed. Note how the rate increases from mental health towards learning disabilities. It clearly shows the more severe the disability the less credibility there is towards the victim.

That is what Stanko calls ‘decriminalisation.’ (Or if one prefers, making rape permissible.) The basic elements of Stanko’s findings can be read at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

As 2014 has worn on we have found even more disappointments for disabled people. E.G. Abdul al Faisal, Andrew Young, Craig Kinsella, Faruk Ali, Reece Roberts, Scott Blackwood. 

One can agree that these indicators are a pretty good guide to what disabled people (and perhaps especially women) will face when dealing with both police and criminal justice system. Acts against the disabled are pretty well permissible (de-criminialised.) There is something we know in 2014, and definitely the next year or two ahead –  disabled people will not get a fair hearing – yet.

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