A man in remand looking out of window.

Does the criminal justice system treat disabled people fairly?

We launched an inquiry to understand the experiences of disabled defendants and accused people in the criminal justice system. We looked at whether the their needs are properly identified, and the types of adjustments being made to accomodate those needs, so they are able to participate in court processes and understand the charges they face.

The issue

Existing evidence tells us that  people with cognitive impairments, mental health conditions and neuro-diverse conditions are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. 

A number of groups, including charities, legal advocates, and families of defendants or accused, have raised longstanding concerns about the barriers that disabled defendants or accused can face during their experience of the criminal justice process.

In England and Wales, court modernisation has led to the introduction of new processes. We wanted to look at the opportunities and risks they pose for disabled defendants.

In Scotland, reform of the criminal justice system is a longstanding priority of the Scottish Government. We want to make sure that the impact these changes may have on disabled accused is fully considered.

What we did

Our inquiry focused on the ‘pre-trial’ stage, which is after a person has been charged, but before a trial begins. We looked into this in England, Scotland and Wales. 

Our aim was to improve access to justice for people with cognitive impairments (problems with a person's thinking, communication, understanding or memory), mental health conditions and neuro-diverse conditions, including autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

People who are charged with a criminal offence are called ‘defendants’ in England and Wales, and ‘accused’ in Scotland. We gathered a range of evidence to enable us to understand the issues that defendants and accused people face.

We considered:

  • the types of adjustments that are made and when, to improve participation in the criminal justice system
  • what the barriers are to providing these adjustments and what can be done to make improvements, and
  • the effect of court modernisation on this group, including their experiences of digital justice.

To gather evidence, we interveiwed a range of professionals in the sector. Watch our short video of Alex Preston, criminal defence solicitor at Olliers Solicitors. Here, she shares a snapshot of her experience of representing disabled clients and those with mental health conditions in the criminal justice system, and brings to light some of the barriers that they face. 

The result

As a result of our inquiry, we found the following:

  • The justice system is not designed around the needs and abilities of disabled people, and reforms in England and Wales risk further reducing participation.
  • Impairments that may require adjustments are not always identified – this is a barrier to effective participation.
  • Adjustments are not always made for disabled people because information about their impairments is not passed on.
  • The existing framework to provide adjustments to secure effective participation for disabled defendants and accused people is inadequate.
  • Legal professionals do not consistently have the guidance or training they need to be able to recognise impairments, their impact, or how adjustments can be made.

Based on these findings, we make recommendations for change in our inquiry report

More help

If you need advice about equality, human rights or legal issues, you can contact:

Please email the criminal justice system inquiry team if you have any questions about the inquiry.

Last updated: 10 Jul 2020