Law and justice concept. Judge’s gavel, scales, hourglass, books.
Earlier this month, UK Justice Secretary The Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC committed to an investigation into how the judicial system currently serves people on the autism spectrum and people with learning disabilities.
The first call for evidence will be run by prisons and probation authorities, including reports that more than a third of all offenders have learning disabilities or difficulties, and more than half of prisoners may have suffered acquired brain injuries. “
The call for evidence will place particular emphasis on the role language and language difficulties play in preventing neurodiverse offenders from fully understanding the arrest and appearing in court and participating in legal and judicial processes.
Such a move is certainly a positive step in the right direction, but needs to be understood in the broader context of a judicial system and indeed a legal profession that is pervaded by several barriers to fair and equal access.
These barriers have a significant impact not only on criminals with communication disorders, but also on people with all kinds of disabilities, including those looking to pursue a legal career.
Regarding Buckland’s desire to find out why people with “autism and dyslexia struggle with the law” in particular, the upcoming call for evidence follows a report on the matter released in June by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) .
The EHRC report pointed to widespread deficiencies in both the treatment and early detection of offenders with neurodivergent diseases.
Such a failure to “systematically identify the needs of disabled people” often led, according to the report’s authors, to important adjustments to enable participation and allow for a fair trial that is not foreseen.
Recommendations from the EHRC included more effective monitoring and sharing of data on defendants with disabilities, improved communication and collaboration with health services, and the inclusion of disability awareness training as a compulsory element of those working in the criminal justice system.
Representation of disabled people in the legal profession
The latter educational component is a perfectly valid proposition, but one could also consider how useful this could be supported by greater representation of disabilities within the legal profession itself.
Interestingly, according to the research project “Legal Disabled”, an initiative by Dr. Natasha Hirst and Professor Deborah Foster from Cardiff University, 90% of the lawyers surveyed had invisible impairments unknown to their employer.
Such a staggering number can in part be attributed to what Rhian Smith, a self-identified practicing attorney with an invisible disability and chairman of the Cardiff Law Society’s Disability Subcommittee, calls the “culture of presenterism.”
Contributing to the Law Gazette earlier this month, Smith wrote: “It has always been ingrained in me that the longer you are seen at your desk, the more engaged you are, the more respect you deserve and the more likely you are to be promoted. Being busy and overworked is worn as a badge of honor. “
Smith later continued, “What would I like to see forward? I would like to see law firms reserve training contracts for disabled attorneys. Trainee lawyers become lawyers. Lawyers become partners. And there you have diversity and inclusion from the bottom up. “
Of course, professional attitudes and perceptions are a malleable and moving celebration, but access to the British judicial system is additionally haunted by the oldest chestnut – the poor accessibility of buildings.
Whether or not this is due to the proliferation of old listed buildings, the fact remains that only 15% of UK courts are fully wheelchair accessible, according to investigations carried out in August by negligent lawyer Bolt Burden Kemp.
In fact, only 2% of the 444 dishes examined by the company’s researchers were considered fully accessible. The full accessibility test applied included an 11-point checklist for provisions including handicapped parking spaces, accessible toilets, hearing loop systems, and the allowance of assistance dogs.
On the release of the study, Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK commented: “It is an absurd situation that ten years after the Equality Act was passed, adequate adjustments need to be made to accommodate disabled people, the places where the act is most common generally accepted still do not adhere to the Equal Opportunities Act. “
He went on to add: “Accessibility, like the law itself, must be preserved as a universal principle.”
Effects of Covid-19
In terms of the dystopian times we continue to experience as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19 has mixed effects on the broader path to greater equality within the judicial system.
On the one hand, even in the early days of the UK’s national lockdown, the EHRC expressed concern about the possible negative and exclusive jolt that the rapid expansion of phone and video hearings could have on those with protected characteristics.
Anticipating its broader assessment of the exclusion of those with communication difficulties from the justice system, the EHRC has recommended a careful consideration of the use of intermediaries, the additional time for breaks and the increased use of visual aids to mitigate these concerns.
On the flip side, the pandemic provided a welcome break for those in the legal profession from the exhaustion of traditional labor practices, which include strict management scrutiny and strict adherence to billable hours through increased use of homework.
Further research carried out by Professor Debbie Foster’s team at Cardiff University’s Business School over the summer months and announced in October found that over 80% of disabled lawyers surveyed felt that they were doing their jobs with a similar number Can do it remotely Finding that you didn’t have to travel to work helped a lot.
Commenting on the study, which interviewed 108 disabled members of the Law Society, Professor Foster commented: “Many disabled people have said that homework has become a game changer for them and that they can now do the job people said it did could never do it from home. “
Establishing a more accessible justice system clearly involves several interconnected moving parts. As the EHRC and, thankfully, the UK Government have noted, the priority must be fair and equitable treatment of disabled people who appear in court.
This is especially true for those who may not even be able to understand and talk about the lack of adequate adjustments and the dire consequences this can have for them.
Government dictates and sound policymaking play a crucial role in providing a framework for this. However, a key measure to ensure that such a framework remains robust, relevant and moves with the times will be to ensure that people with real experience with disabilities can share their knowledge and begin careers within this framework.