The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been criticised for failing to treat as a disability hate crime a case in which a disabled man was forced to work for a pittance and live in a shed for 35 years.
Three people were convicted unanimously by a jury last week of requiring the 52-year-old man to perform forced or compulsory labour, after a four-week trial at Oxford Crown Court.
The man, who has learning difficulties, was forced to live in a brick shed that was described as unfit for human habitation, and to undertake heavy manual labour, working for more than 12 hours a day, for which he was paid just £5 a day.
If he failed to work hard enough he was beaten, on at least one occasion with a metal bar.
The three defendants also applied for and collected his benefits – worth £139,000 – for 13 years and as a result were also convicted of conspiracy to defraud following a trial last November.
They will be sentenced next month for this charge, and the forced labour, but CPS has already confirmed to Disability News Service that the offences have not been treated as disability hate crime.
A linked case, which in June last year saw another four defendants convicted of forced labour, involving another man with learning difficulties in the same area of Oxford, was also not treated as disability hate crime.
Thames Valley Police, which carried out both investigations, was unable to comment on the latest case this week because the officer dealing with the case was on leave.
But a CPS spokesman said: “Disabled people face criminal behaviour every day.
“Sometimes, this will be motivated by hostility towards their disability and on other occasions they will be in at-risk situations and exploited because of that.
“We considered prosecuting this case as a disability hate crime but could not identify any evidence to show the offence had been committed because of hostility towards the victim based on his disability.
“The offenders saw an opportunity to exploit the victim for their own personal gain.
“Sentencing is a matter for the courts but the CPS will ask that a victim’s disability is taken into account.”
Anne Novis (pictured), a leading disabled hate crime campaigner and a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said: “Repeatedly we have to ask the question, ‘Why?’
“Why is it not a disability hate crime when a disabled person is abused, humiliated, stolen from, made to do work they do not want to do?
“For us, it is common sense that if someone is targeted due to perceived ‘vulnerability’ and that ‘vulnerability’ is due to being a disabled person then that is hate crime.
“No matter what the law or the CPS say, we, disabled people, are the experts. We know what is or is not hate crime and it is our voice, our perception, and that of the victim that should take precedence.
“It is obvious that the justice system still has a lot of work to do on this issue. Such cases do not inspire our confidence.”
Meanwhile, a new CPS report has shown that the number of cases of disability hate crime prosecuted in 2015-16 increased by more than 40 per cent compared with the previous year, rising from 666 to 941.
The number of convictions also rose by more than 40 per cent, from 503 to 707, although the conviction rate fell slightly, from 75.5 per cent to 75.1 per cent (it was as high as 81.9 per cent in 2013-14).
The report says CPS will “identify and execute further work necessary to address the relatively low conviction rate”, comparing it with the overall hate crime conviction rate of 83.2 per cent.
The number of cases in which the sentence was increased because the court accepted the offences were disability hate crimes also rose, from 5.4 per cent of successfully prosecuted disability hate crime cases in 2014-15 to 11.9 per cent of such cases in 2015-16. This rate had been as low as 0.6 per cent in 2013-14.
The CPS report said the figure still remained “considerably lower” than for other hate crime strands, and promised to work internally to “sustain continuing improvement”, while work would “also be undertaken with the courts to ensure consistent application of sentence uplifts”.
The report also revealed that the proportion of both 10-13 year olds and 14-17-year-olds involved as defendants in disability hate crime prosecutions fell from 4.9 per cent and 23.5 per cent in 2007-08 to 1.3 per cent and 9.6 per cent in 2015-16.
The report says: “The CPS benefits from a strong relationship with communities affected by disability hate crime as a result of a combination of structured engagement and transparent performance and hopes that, together with an improved conviction rate, community confidence will continue to grow.
“In turn, it is hoped that this will provide an environment in which increased numbers of those affected by hate crime will feel able to report.”
Stephen Brookes, another leading hate crime campaigner and DHCN coordinator, said the increase in prosecutions was “good news”.
But he warned against complacency, and added: “There are still far too many inconsistencies in police, CPS and the judiciary responses, and the gap shown between good and bad practice is massive.”
He said the work done by the network had been “a key part of the improvements seen today, and the message from us is, ‘The fight isn’t won yet.’
“Rather, we are at the beginning of the real battle of getting closer cooperation between all partners, criminal justice system, disabled people, academics, and the media, who can help with the message that disability hate crime is on its way out.”