A judge has been criticised for his “appalling” failure to treat the “degrading, cruel and inhuman” abuse of people with learning difficulties at a hospital as a disability hate crime.
There was widespread anger among people with learning difficulties and other disabled people at the sentences that were handed out last month to former staff at the Winterbourne View private hospital, near Bristol.
Six of the 11 former employees were given prison terms ranging from six months to two years when they appeared before Judge Neil Ford QC for sentencing at Bristol Crown Court. Another five received suspended prison sentences.
Andrew Lee, director of People First Self Advocacy, said his reaction on hearing the sentences was one of “rage”, while he said the sentence of just two years in prison for Wayne Rogers, recognised as the ring-leader of the abusers, was “woefully inadequate”.
But in the wake of the sentencing, criminal justice agencies refused to say whether the judge had treated the abuse as disability hate crime.
Disability News Service has now obtained a copy of the judge’s sentencing remarks.
He told the court of “a culture of ill-treatment” at Winterbourne View, of “degrading, cruel and inhuman conduct” and of the “miserable existence” the residents were subjected to.
He described how Rogers taunted, slapped and kicked service-users, threatened them with extreme violence and used “wholly inappropriate” methods of restraint.
Other staff admitted pulling their hair, soaking them with water and threatening them, while one slapped a female service-user in the face and told her: “See you later, gimp.”
The convictions followed last year’s screening of an undercover investigation into the abuse by the BBC’s Panorama.
But the sentencing remarks make it clear that the judge did not treat the abusive regime as disability hate crime, even though the Crown Prosecution Service had insisted the offences were “based on ignorance, prejudice and hate”.
If the judge had treated the offences as disability hate crimes, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, the former staff members would have faced tougher sentences.
Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said it was an “appalling” failure, and “one of the worst examples of judges getting it so horribly wrong” on hate crime.
He said the sentences were “almost a slap on the wrist”, and particularly disappointing at a time when the CPS and police were making some progress in tackling hate crime.
The sentencing came only days after a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that action by public bodies to tackle disability-related harassment had been “patchy”, with some authorities “doing nothing or very little at all”.
In March, the government published its own hate crime action plan. One of its three key objectives was for a more “effective” treatment of hate crime by the criminal justice system, with agencies “dealing with offenders robustly”.
The action plan called for a response in which “the court takes into account the aggravating factor of hate crime and applies an enhanced sentence accordingly”.
Despite the judge failing to use section 146 to increase the Winterbourne View sentences, a Ministry of Justice spokesman claimed that courts “already treat all hate crime seriously and aggravate sentences accordingly”.
The Crown Prosecution Service has so far failed to comment.
A spokesman for the Judicial Communications Office said it was “unable to comment on judicial decisions or sentencing”.
8 November 2012