The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is facing fresh criticism after it made no attempt to persuade a judge that two care workers who abused disabled people in a day centre were guilty of disability hate crimes.
The successful prosecution of the two former nursing assistants only came about after Disability News Service (DNS) brought the scandal to the attention of the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, following two failed investigations by South Yorkshire police and CPS.
James Hinds, aged 59, and another former nursing assistant, Susan Murphy, 44, were eventually found guilty of ill-treatment under the Mental Health Act, at Sheffield Crown Court last month.
Hinds was found guilty on 10 of 19 charges, and Murphy on 15 of 20 charges, all against people with learning difficulties and high support needs who used the Solar Centre, in the grounds of St Catherine’s Hospital, Doncaster, between 2005 and 2007.
A jury had heard how Hinds hit and slapped service-users, threw one man into his wheelchair, stabbed one of the men repeatedly on the arm and hand with a needle because he wouldn’t sit down, dragged a man to the toilet, and hit one of the service-users with a microphone.
It also heard how Murphy slapped, punched and hit service-users, and locked a disabled woman in a cupboard.
But although CPS barrister Sarah Wright asked at last week’s sentencing hearing for the offences to be treated as disability hate crimes, she failed to offer any evidence that the defendants were guilty of targeted hostility.
Judge Rosalind Coe sentenced both Hinds and Murphy to two years and nine months in prison, lower sentences than they would have received if she had accepted the offences were disability hate crimes.
Adrian Milnes, whose step-son Richie was abused at the Solar Centre and who attended much of the trial, said there had been continuing confusion from the prosecution throughout the court case, with one official telling him the offences would not be treated as hate crimes, another later saying they “might”, and a third telling DNS they “definitely” would.
Milnes said families of the Solar Centre service-users had been forced to “fight tooth and nail for justice”, but the resulting sentences had been so low that they were “without meaning”.
He said: “Every member of the public who has spoken to me about the sentencing has given one of two answers: ‘It is not enough,’ or ‘Is that all?’ Go out and ask people, because you will only get those two answers.”
Andrew Hopkinson, whose older brother Peter was abused at the Solar Centre, and who also attended much of the trial, said: “I am glad it has come to the attention of the public what has been going on in these places, but I don’t think I would have been happy even if they had got 10 years.”
He added: “I cannot understand why it was not classed as a hate crime.”
A spokesman for the Judicial Communications Office claimed that the CPS barrister “did not argue nor call any evidence that hostility was based on the disability of the victim”.
He said: “The judge made clear in her sentencing remarks to the court that in her view there was no evidence that this crime had been motivated consciously or unconsciously by disability hatred.”
A CPS spokesman claimed the case was “correctly handled” as a disability hate crime, and that the evidence of hostility was “implicit throughout the case” and in the charges themselves.
He said: “In the course of the five-week trial, the judge heard detailed evidence about the defendants’ hostility towards the victims, which we believed strongly supported the basis of a disability hate crime, and was therefore well acquainted with all the circumstances of the case.”
He claimed the judge “would not have thanked us for repeating what she had already heard”.
But when asked to confirm that the CPS barrister could have produced evidence at the sentencing hearing to try to show that it was a disability hate crime, the spokesman said: “I don’t know.”
The case follows a similar high-profile failure last year, when a judge sentenced staff at the Winterbourne View private hospital, also for ill-treatment of people with learning difficulties, but again refused to treat the abusive regime as disability hate crime, even though CPS had insisted the offences had been based on “ignorance, prejudice and hate”.
If offences are treated by a judge as disability hate crimes, the sentences must be given an “uplift” under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act.
Last year, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that action by public bodies to tackle disability hate crime had been “patchy”, with some authorities “doing nothing or very little at all”.
The government also published a hate crime action plan last year, and 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 action plan, the Ministry of Justice refused this week to comment on the Solar Centre sentencing, with a spokeswoman saying only that it was “for independent judges to decide on the appropriate sentence for an offender as only they have the full facts of the case in front of them”.
20 June 2013