Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2008 17:59 UK

Courts 'let down' disabled people

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News

Photo of Sir Ken Macdonald
Sir Ken says disability hate crime is very widespread

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has criticised the failure of the criminal justice system to tackle hate crimes against disabled people.

Sir Ken Macdonald wants police and prosecutors to give courts "all the facts" so crimes against disabled people are punished properly.

He said many disabled people lived in fear because they were perceived by criminals as easy targets.

Disability groups have welcomed Sir Ken's remarks as "encouraging."

Sir Ken said that all institutions involved in criminal justice, including the Crown Prosecution Service which he heads, shared responsibility for the treatment of people with disabilities.

'Scar on the conscience'

"This is a scar on the conscience of criminal justice," he told an audience of lawyers and equality experts at an event in London.

The 2003 Criminal Justice Act contains provisions for harsher sentences to be handed down where hostility towards a person's disability can be proved.

We hope Sir Ken's speech will act as a catalyst for this type of crime to be handled more effectively
Alice Maynard, Scope

But a BBC investigation earlier this year revealed that the provision had hardly been used.

One of the problems it identified was that in many cases the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) often placed too much emphasis on a person's vulnerability rather than their disability - something with which the DPP seems to agree.

"A mistaken focus on vulnerability risks enhancing an already negative image of disabled people as inherently weak, easy targets and dependent," Sir Ken said.

"This approach is wrong: it means that the opportunity to condemn the prejudice of the offender is missed."

Hate crimes

Prosecutors employed by CPS, and any lawyers instructed by it, would now have to avoid this approach, according to Sir Ken.

He is concerned that the problem is widespread but that a lot of hate crimes are not being picked up.

And more serious offences are not being prosecuted as they should be, he thinks.

One of the problems of bringing a successful prosecution is establishing the motivation behind the offence.

But the DPP said that it was not always necessary for hostility to be expressed openly.

"Each apparently minor incident of name calling and harassment on the street may see relatively unimportant but, taken together, a pattern of hostility could be traced."

History of offences

He said disability hate crime prosecutions could be based on a history of targeting disabled people, repeat victimisation and evidence from other witnesses of a perpetrator's prejudicial attitudes.

The CPS says it will continue to work with disability groups to combat hate crime.

The DPP's focus on disability hate crime has been welcomed by disability groups which have been campaigning for the issue to be taken more seriously.

Alice Maynard who chairs pan-disability charity, Scope, said Sir Ken's speech marked "a very encouraging development and sends out a clear message that disabled people should have access to justice in the same way as non-disabled people".

"We look forward to working with the Crown Prosecution Service on disability hate crime. We hope Sir Ken's speech will act as a catalyst for this type of crime to be handled more effectively by the criminal justice system in future and prosecuted and punished for what it is."

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