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Wednesday, November 26, 1997 Published at 09:31 GMT


'No justice' for people with special needs
image: [ Mencap believes Alison Davies is one of many witnesses seen as
Mencap believes Alison Davies is one of many witnesses seen as "not credible"

People with learning disabilities are being failed by Britain's legal system, according to campaigners.

Barristers, judges, magistrates and police officers receive little or no training on the special needs of people who have difficulty communicating, a survey by the charity Mencap has found.

Many people with conditions ranging from autism to Down's Syndrome are written off as "not credible" witnesses and their cases sometimes never heard. Campaigners are calling for changes to provide people with learning disabilities with the same protection as the rest of society.

The chief executive of Mencap, Fred Heddell, said: "People with learning disabilities are vulnerable and they deserve more, not less, protection by the legal system.

"Unfortunately yet again they are being sidelined and it appears that crimes against people who are sometimes unable to speak for themselves are condoned by the British legal system."

"No voice of their own"

Supporting the campaign is Clare Davies. In January 1994 she first heard allegations that her daughter Alison, 21, she was being abused at the day centre she was attending near their home in South Yorkshire.

In July that year, the parents of several children at the centre were called together to be told that there was not enough evidence to bring a prosecution, so their case was being thrown out.

Ms Davies said: "None of the children have got any voices. They couldn't talk, they couldn't give their own evidence and say what had happened to them and they were seen as bad witnesses.

"The first day I got to hear about the news I was totally devastated and we feel that someone should have to stand up and be counted. These children have suffered."

Barriers to Justice

The survey - called Barriers to Justice - of 285 police officers, 49 barristers and interviews with judges and magistrates around Britain comes after growing concern about fair treatment.

The survey found that judges and magistrates received no training on special needs. While more than three-quarters of barristers have represented people with learning disabilities, 96% had not been trained in their needs and only a third of police officers had undergone special training.

The charity recommends training for the whole legal system. It also wants greater sensitivity when dealing with people with learning disabilities.

It is estimated that there are 1,400 cases of sexual abuse against people with learning disabilities every year, but only a quarter of these are investigated by police and less than 1% successfully prosecuted.

The report was backed by the specialist journal Community Care. The editor, Terry Philpot, said: "Abuse of a person with a learning difficulty is a crime and must be treated as such. It is vital that professionals work together if justice is to be served to all members of our society."

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Internet Links

Mencap, the organisation supporting people with learning disabilities and their families

Autism UK: Support information

The Down Syndrome WWW page: General information

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