Headlines: December 1st, 2009

The criminal justice system is criticised today for being ‘unwieldy and opaque’ in a new report which says it is unlawfully undermining the ability of thousands of vulnerable adults and children to understand what is happening to them in court. The report from the Prison Reform Trust says they are left to fend for themselves.

‘Vulnerable Defendants in the Criminal Courts,’ reviews the support in the court system for adults with learning disabilities or learning difficulties and then goes on to examine the situation for children. It finds that in spite of these groups being known to be vulnerable there is a lack of planning and support for their needs leaving them routinely unable to understand and participate effectively in criminal proceedings, which, the report says, is crucial to the right to a fair trial set out in the Human Rights Act.

Some people, the report says, do not even know why they are in court or what they have done wrong. A third of vulnerable adults said simpler language would help them. While all children appearing in court are vulnerable some are doubly disadvantaged by mental health problems, learning disabilities, past abuse and because they have been in the care system.

The report recommends vulnerable defendants are given the same support offered to vulnerable witnesses and that judges and magistrates should be trained on the range of impairments defendants can display. It also wants a review of the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales with a view to its being raised to the UN recommended minimum of 12 years and preferably to the European norm of 14.