Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Prosecutors must 'raise game' on disabled hate crime

Keith Shortman: "They just decided to pick on a disabled person"

The Crown Prosecution Service should do more to help disabled victims of hate crime, an official has said.

Joanna Perry, of the CPS's equality and diversity unit, said the prosecution service for England and Wales needed to "raise its game" over the issue.

She added that it must secure more successful prosecutions against those who target people with disabilities.

Charity Mencap welcomed the call, saying many people with disabilities were reluctant to report crimes.

New guidelines

Ms Perry's comments follow the case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter, Francecca Hardwick, 18, after years of abuse from a gang in Barwell, Leicestershire.

And last March a man with learning difficulties, David Askew, collapsed and died after allegedly being harassed by youths in Greater Manchester.

We have to make sure that we are working really hard to prevent these things from happening in the first place
Chief Constable Steve Otter
Association of Chief Police Officers

The CPS has recently issued new guidelines to prosecutors which it says will help increase the number of cases brought to court.

They include a list of common factors in disability hate crime, asking prosecutors to look at whether there has been a pattern of offences, and encouraging more focus on the victim's right to justice.

While the police and prosecution service have had some success in tackling race, religious and homophobic crime, they admit they have been less successful in combating hate crimes targeted at disabled people.

In an interview with the BBC, Ms Perry said: "We think that the CPS could raise its game and that we could better identify where there is hostility against disabled people - in other words, where there's evidence we can bring to the courts' attention that shows that this crime, for example, was not just a robbery, it was a disability hate crime robbery."

'Kicked and punched'

But Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Law Society criminal law committee, warned that many such cases would not make it into court

"A lot of these cases may fall at the first hurdle," he said.

"When people with disabilities realise they've got to go to court, they've got to give evidence, they may feel somewhat disempowered, somewhat reluctant to go to court because of the issue of repercussions."

Fiona Pilkington (l) and daughter Francecca Hardwick
Leicestershire police failed to treat the Pilkingtons' case as hate crime

Police say hate crime against people with disabilities is often difficult to define, but better training has raised awareness.

Chief Constable Steve Otter, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said agencies needed to work together to tackle the problem.

"There's no doubt we can do more. It's very challenging - we have to make sure our officers are trained properly so they can identify disability and mental health issues," he said.

"We have to make sure that we can get the evidence into court in an admissible way and we have to make sure that we are working really hard to prevent these things from happening in the first place."

Disability hate victim Keith Shortman spent two years sleeping under a bridge because he was too scared to stay at home after being targeted.

He told BBC News: "I got kicked and punched to the ground. They just decided to pick on a disabled person.

"They kept banging on the door, waking me up while I was asleep. I didn't want to stay in the house because I didn't want to be terrorised."

'Authority fear'

Mencap says it has conducted research that suggests about 90% of people with learning disabilities have been bullied, many of them victims of crime.

The charity's chief executive Mark Goldring told the BBC: "It's great that the CPS have said this now. A lot of the issue is people don't report it, and people are scared to report. They're scared of coming into contact with authority.

"When they do, they're seen as being unreliable, very difficult to pin down - people with a learning difficulty find it very hard to express themselves.

"People with all disabilities fear that contact with authority, then authority thinks they're not going to be very reliable witnesses."

Disability charity Scope said recognition of the need to tackle hate crime was long overdue.

Ruth Scott, policy and campaigns director of Scope, said: "Too many disabled people are being denied justice for the crimes committed against them and conviction rates for disability hate crimes are still much lower than other types of hate crime.

"New guidelines for police are a step in the right direction. Police officers and prosecutors need much clearer guidance and training on how to recognise, investigate and prosecute disability hate crimes if disabled people are to have any confidence in the criminal justice system."

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