Fresh concerns have emerged over the way the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deal with disability hate crime, in the week that a major inquiry called for action to address the issue across the criminal justice system.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission report was launched in Westminster, just as five young people from Warwickshire were being sentenced at the Old Bailey for the horrific killing of Gemma Hayter, a 27-year-old woman with learning difficulties, whose body was found on a disused railway line last August.
Hayter had considered the five to be her friends, but was brutally beaten, and forced to drink from a can of beer that two of her “friends” had urinated in.
After the attack, she was cleaned up and led to a deserted railway embankment, where she was violently beaten again, cut with a knife, kicked, stripped and had a plastic bag put over her head. Her dead body was left naked beside the abandoned railway line.
The EHRC report, Hidden in Plain Sight, concluded on Monday that hundreds of thousands of disabled people were being subjected to disability-related harassment every year. The report accused public bodies of a “systematic, institutional failure” to recognise the problem.
Disability News Service (DNS) has reported on a string of court cases involving prolonged, violent attacks on disabled people which have exposed problems within the criminal justice system over its treatment of disability hate crime.
The head of the CPS, Keir Starmer, told the EHRC launch event that the report was “an important benchmark for the challenges facing us”.
He said it was clear that his organisation needed to “reflect long and hard on the evidence in this report” and warned that it was “important to remind ourselves just how much further we need to go” in tackling disability hate crime.
Just three days later, the CPS admitted to DNS that it had originally failed to treat the killing of Gemma Hayter as a disability hate crime.
Although – as the EHRC report points out – the law currently does not allow higher “starting tariffs” for disability-related murders, as it does for racist or homophobic murders, it does allow for higher sentences for manslaughter.
Three of the defendants in the case – Daniel Newstead, Chantelle Booth, and Joe Boyer, all of Little Pennington Street, Rugby, were found guilty of murdering Hayter. But two others – Jessica Lynas, of Little Pennington Street, and Duncan Edwards, of Rounds Gardens, Rugby – were convicted of manslaughter.
The CPS has admitted that the case was “not initially flagged up as a disability hate crime”, and it was only after a review that the CPS instructed its barrister to ask the judge for an increased sentence for Lynas and Edwards.
But a CPS spokeswoman has so far been unable to say why the sentences of Lynas and Edwards do not appear to have been increased by the judge.
Warwickshire police has refused to comment on why it does not appear to have treated the case as a disability hate crime, because of an ongoing serious case review into Gemma Hayter’s death.
Newstead was given a life sentence and told he must serve a minimum of 20 years before parole can be considered, while Booth must serve at least 21 years of her life sentence, and Boyer 16 years of his. Lynas was sentenced to 13 years and Edwards to 15 years.
The EHRC report calls on the government to address the “disparity” in sentencing for disability-related murders (a starting tariff of 15 years) and other hate crime murders (a starting tariff of 30 years), which it says “inadvertently sends out a message that a disabled person’s life can be considered only half as valuable as that of others”.
Mike Smith, the EHRC commissioner who led the harassment inquiry, said it was “quite clear” that the “obvious anomaly” in murder sentencing needed to be addressed.
But he also stressed the need for section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows for increased sentences for disability hate crimes – including manslaughter, but not murder – to be “applied more effectively and more clearly” by the criminal justice system.
He added: “The law just has to be better understood and better applied by all agencies involved.”
Katharine Quarmby, whose ground-breaking new book Scapegoat investigates disability hate crime, said it was clear that the law on sentencing for disability-related murders needed to be amended.
She urged MPs to back an amendment to make such a change to the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, which is currently in its Commons committee stage.
15 September 2011