A woman walking down a street holding legal papers

Inquiry: Does the criminal justice system treat disabled people fairly?

Interim report in response to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented changes in how people live, including major challenges for the criminal justice system.

During this period we will be checking that emergency changes do not place protected groups at further disadvantage and deepen entrenched inequality.

As the use of video and phone hearings has been swiftly expanded by the Ministry of Justice, in response to COVID-19, we have released interim findings from this inquiry, to help mitigate the risks that these technologies pose to disabled people.

We are not calling for video and audio hearings to be halted; we are concerned about the lack of data currently available on the use of remote hearings, and encouraged Governments to begin collecting this data now to inform its use in the future.

The full report for this inquiry will be published later in the year.


We launched this inquiry to understand the experiences of disabled defendants or accused in the criminal justice system. People who are charged with a criminal offence are called ‘defendants’ in England and Wales, and ‘accused’ in Scotland.

We looked at whether the needs of these defendants or accused are properly identified and whether adjustments are put in place to meet their needs, so they are able to take part fully in court processes. Our work covered England, Scotland and Wales.

About the inquiry

Our inquiry covered the ‘pre-trial’ stage, which is after a person has been charged, but before a trial begins.

Our main focus was to look at 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 and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Our inquiry looked at what more can be done to identify and meet the needs of this group of disabled defendants or accused. We:

  • looked at which types of adjustments are used, and when, to improve participation in the criminal justice system
  • considered what the barriers are to providing these adjustments and what can be done to make improvements
  • tried to understand the effect of court modernisation on this group, including their experiences of digital justice

We gathered a range of evidence to enable us to understand these issues, including:

  • interviews with defendants or accused
  • interviews with relevant professionals (including court staff, legal advocates and the judiciary)
  • a mapping exercise to understand the extent of court modernisation in the criminal justice system across Great Britain
  • gathering information from third sector bodies and academics who have expertise on these issues

Inquiries are one of the tools we can use to promote equality and human rights. They can help us to find out more about equality or human rights within a particular sector, or in relation to a specific issue. Inquiries are one of our powers.

We use the evidence we collect during our inquiries to make recommendations for change. Our aim for this inquiry was to improve access to justice for this group of defendants or accused.

Why is this issue so important?

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

A number of groups and organisations have raised long-standing concerns about the barriers that disabled defendants or accused can face during their experience of the criminal justice process. This includes charities, legal advocates, families of defendants or accused and the judiciary.

If the needs of these defendants or accused are not identified, and appropriate adjustments are not put in place, individuals may not fully understand the charges they face. This may result in them being unable to properly take part in court proceedings, so they receive inappropriate sentences or can even face miscarriages of justice.

In England and Wales, new processes linked to court modernisation are being introduced and we want to look at the opportunities and risks they pose for disabled defendants.

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

Advice and guidance

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

Last updated: 27 Apr 2020