Autistic rights campaigners have welcomed a new inquiry into the discrimination faced by disabled people in the criminal justice system.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry, which will cover England, Scotland and Wales, will look at whether the barriers in the system are exposing disabled people to potential miscarriages of justice.
It will focus on autistic and other neurodivergent people, people with learning difficulties and those with mental health conditions, concentrating on their experiences after they have been charged with a criminal offence and before they reach trial.
The inquiry will examine whether their needs are properly identified and if they receive the adjustments they need to allow them to understand the charges and the legal process and to participate “effectively and as fully as possible”.
Adjustments can include the use of intermediaries, allowing extra time and breaks, and providing accessible information.
The EHRC inquiry will also look at how modernisation of the court system, such as the use of video-link hearings and online processes, is affecting disabled defendants and accused (the Scottish criminal justice system uses the term “accused” instead of defendants).
And it will examine the legal duties of the government, public sector bodies and the judiciary to make adjustments under the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The inquiry was welcomed by Autistic UK, which is run by and for autistic people.
Kat Humble, Autistic UK’s communications officer, said: “Autistic UK welcome this investigation, as we have heard far too many stories from people going through the justice system unsupported and misunderstood.
“There is little wonder that so many in the autistic community mistrust the justice system when they so often end up victims of miscommunication and overwhelming environments through lack of adequate support.
“The time between a charge and a trial is fraught with panic and overwhelming decisions.
“It is critical at this juncture to ensure that the person charged understands what is happening, understands any decisions made about them, and has the information to make any decisions they need to make for themselves.
“Appropriate advocacy is imperative to ensure smooth communication, along with such reasonable adjustments such as a low stimulation environment and time allowed for the person to process all information.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “The launch of this inquiry shows the level of concern of the treatment of disabled people by our criminal justice system.
“It is disgraceful that some of the most marginalised in society are denied support and face miscarriages of justice.
“Disabled people deserve a process in which they are able to fully participate. Labour will create a justice system that treats disabled people equally and fairly.”
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair (pictured), said: “The criminal justice system is complex and people with impairments such as autism and mental health conditions can find it especially difficult to navigate their way through the system.
“It is essential that criminal justice works fairly for everyone and that anyone accused of a crime is not disadvantaged by virtue of having an impairment.
“Technology can often assist and empower disabled people, but we must also ensure it is used appropriately and doesn’t inadvertently end up isolating disabled people or jeopardising their ability to participate in person.
“If disabled people’s needs aren’t properly identified from the outset they are at risk of not understanding the charges they face, the advice they receive or the legal process.
“In some cases, this can mean disabled people could be wrongly convicted or receive inappropriate sentences.”
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