The Equality and Human Rights Commission has called for codes of conduct to be amended to make disability awareness a professional requirement.

The commission conducted an inquiry into the experiences of adult defendants in the criminal justice system with ‘hidden’ disabilities, publishing its findings and recommendations today. It says legal professionals do not currently have the guidance or training they need to be able to recognise impairments, their impact or how adjustments can be made.

Evidence suggests around 40% of people detained in police custody have a mental health condition. Between 5% and 10% of the prison population has a learning disability. Half of male inmates have some degree of traumatic brain injury. The commission found that legal professionals rely strongly on the defendant to disclose any impairment. However, some defendants told the commission they did not want their needs to be identified because they felt embarrassed or ashamed.

Although guidance and training is available, the commission was told that there is no compulsory or free disability training for solicitors in England and Wales. Available training on vulnerability usually focuses on victims and witnesses. The Solicitors Regulation Authority told the inquiry that in 2019, only a third or private practice solicitors had training on supporting vulnerable people. Some magistrates said disability training is mandatory but focuses more on access for people with physical impairments.

The commission says initial professional qualification training for law students should include disability awareness. Codes of conduct and standards should be amended to include disability awareness. It should also be a mandatory element of continuing professional development for criminal lawyers.

Today’s report also points out that witnesses are supported by intermediaries in around 6,000 cases a year, but there is no equivalent power under primary legislation to provide intermediaries for defendants.

The commission tells the government to implement recommendations made in the Law Commission’s Unfitness to Plead report to give defendants a statutory entitlement to intermediaries.