Injustice and vulnerable defendants
Vulnerable defendants are not getting fair trials and should have the benefit of the sort of special measures available to vulnerable witnesses in criminal trials, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) suggests today.
A hard-hitting briefing paper cites research showing that over a fifth of prisoners said they did not understand what was going on in court, or what was happening to them. Two thirds had difficulties with verbal comprehension and some did not even understand why they were in court or what they had done wrong.
The report says that one in 15 prisoners has a learning difficulty, up to a third have an IQ of less than 80 and seven out of 10 have a dual diagnosis, combining mental health problems and drug or alcohol misuse. It warns that the lack of support offered to these vulnerable adult and child defendants might affect their ability to participate effectively in court proceedings and to receive a fair trial.
Special measures already made available to vulnerable witnesses, including access to registered intermediaries, together with other reasonable adjustments, should be available for vulnerable defendants to enhance their capacity to participate effectively and to help ensure fitness to plead.
The report suggests that criminal lawyers, judges and liaison and diversion staff should be required to participate in awareness training in mental health problems, learning disabilities and other disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, communication difficulties and dyslexia. It also recommends that appropriate adults should be available for 17-year-olds, and that there should be statutory provision of appropriate adults for vulnerable adult suspects.
The trust’s director Juliet Lyon, suggests that ‘people with a learning disability in Britain today are not always granted a fair trial’. She says: ‘Far more must be done to prevent the nightmare of entering trial proceedings, which could result in imprisonment, without adequate support and without fully understanding what is going on, or being able to speak up for yourself.’
The changes suggested seem only fair and sensible. For any defendant facing criminal charges and the prospect of a trial, it must be a frightening and anxious time. But for those who are not even fully aware of what is going on and who cannot understand the words being used, it must be so much more distressing.
The Ministry of Justice accepts that it is ‘vital that those with learning difficulties or mental health issues are given a fair trial’, and it insists that measures are already in place to ensure that.
But sadly, in the current climate where the impetus is to secure faster and cheaper justice, protecting the rights of vulnerable defendants is unlikely to be a priority.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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