Whether our legal system fails learning-disabled victims of crime is something which most lawyers have probably never even considered. After all, very few cases involving victims with learning difficulties ever get to court.
But why these victims are so often exiled from the legal system is a question now being addressed in a play produced by the Strathcona theatre company.
Strathcona, which is made up of eight learning-disabled professional actors and two directors, aims to challenge our preconceptions and promote a positive view of disability. Its actors use a combination of physical theatre, such as mime and dance, and the spoken word, to represent life from the point of view of people with learning difficulties.
The company's often controversial work has in the past covered topics such as eugenics, religion and drug abuse. Its latest piece, An Error of Judgement, examines the hurdles facing learning-disabled victims of crime. It was born out of discussions between the company's actors and anecdotal evidence from other learning-disabled people. It also draws on a report prepared for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Dr Christopher Williams, a lecturer in international education at Birmingham University.
The report, Invisible Victims, is based on a two-year study and interviews with more than 200 learning-disabled victims of crime. It reveals that, although people with learning difficulties are often victims of persistent, low-level offending, only three out of every 100 crimes with learning-disabled victims results in a conviction.
Williams found that criminal offences perpetrated against people with learning difficulties were often not regarded as such by lawyers, the police or the victims themselves, making it difficult to obtain redress. And those victims who did get to court were often subjected to techniques, such as aggressive cross-examination, which exploited their disability to undermine their evidence.
His report concludes: “The police do not record crimes because they believe the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will not prosecute, staff [supervising the learning disabled] do not report to the police because they do nothing and victims do not tell staff because they say the police will not help.
“Consequently, the courts are unpractised at dealing with vulnerable witnesses and perpetrators see people with learning difficulties as safe targets. Positive action by the CPS, as in North America (where the prosecution service must actively support vulnerable witnesses) could break this spiral.”
Strathcona created An Error of Judgement in the hope of raising awareness among professionals such as carers, the police and the CPS, and at the same time encouraging other learning-disabled people to take action against abuse. Co-director Ian McCurrach says: “We would like people to realise that some of the law is outdated so, for example, people who are mentally impaired are capable of living independently. We also hope to achieve better access to the legal system.”
This entertaining and original work sheds a new perspective on crime and the courts, and throws down the gauntlet to all those involved in making our system of justice work.
An Error of Judgement is touring the country until 7 July. For details call Strathcona on 0171 403 9316.
community care and the law
Legislation, legal precedents and common law develop with the values of the society they serve.
But if people with learning disabilities – 3 per cent of the UK population – remain hidden from society, they will have little influence over the development of the law, and judicial practice may further hide the victimisation of those it is supposed to serve.
The law often does not help victims to achieve redress because legislation made before community care does not take account of the new lifestyles of people with learning disabilities.
The Sexual Offences Act 1956 s21(1) concerning abduction, for example, assumes that all people with learning disabilities are in the possession of a guardian from whom they are abducted. Thus it excludes anyone living independently.
And under the Mental Health Act 1983 s136(1), if the police arrest a person then they must comply, even if the arrest is considered unlawful, and officers may use reasonable force if the individual does not come quietly.
But while the Mental Health Act gives the police apparent powers to detain, there is no stated obligation on the individual to comply, nor mention of reasonable force to enforce detention.