In court: examples of cases
This page gives some examples of cases discussing the need to make appropriate adjustments for disabled people in court. There are also some links at the end on courts and law enforcement.
Advice for judges on disability is contained in the Equal Treatment Bench Book (link to judiciary.gov.uk). Judges are often not covered by Equality Act 2010 (the extent of the exclusion is unclear). However, cases below indicate that judges still have obligations in relation to disability.
Apart from judges, court authorities/staff should generally be subject to obligations under Equality Act 2010.
There is a Court Service Disability helpline on 0800 358 3506, dealing with both criminal and civil courts.
Case: court decision quashed for not taking account of disability
This case was not an Equality Act case but a claim for judicial review of a Crown Court decision. The Crown Court had turned down the defendant's appeal against a criminal conviction. However, the defendant argued that the hearing of his appeal had been unfair. He had had a stroke, and the court had not taken into account the effects of this.
The effects of the stroke included tiredness, which was a problem because he had had to wait at the court almost 6 hours before his case started. Another effect was that he had greater difficulty expressing himself. For example, his wife gave evidence that after the illness he found it difficult to assimilate his thoughts into brief, concise, clear questions, and the judge had been irritated by this.
The defendant's claim succeeded. The High Court agreed that the rejection of his appeal should be quashed, and his appeal could be reconsidered. Talking about advice in the Equal Treatment Bench Book (linked above), the court said: "...I wish to stress in this judgment that this advice is important advice which every judge and every justice of the peace is under a duty to take into account when hearing a case involving people with one disability or another."
R v Isleworth Crown Court ex parte Murray King (link to docstoc.com), High Court, 2001.
Case: non-statutory duty on judges to make reasonable adjustments
The Bar Standards Board Review Panel decided in this case that a barrister with aphasia was fit to practise. In so deciding, the Panel considered that judges had a non-statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments. This duty was separate from the Equality Act 2010.
In the matter of Horan, Bar Standards Board Review Panel, 2010. The duty in that case would relate to making adjustments for the barrister's aphasia. However, the duty should of course also apply in relation to the disability of a party or witness. The person who could enforce the duty would not necessarily be the disabled person.
Case (Australian): court misinterpreting stammer as dishonesty
In an Australian criminal case, aspects of a speech impediment were mistaken for dishonesty. Mr Coombe was convicted of assaulting his wife. The magistrate did not believe his evidence, but was unaware of Mr Coombe's stammer. The conviction was overturned and the case sent for re-hearing.
Coombe v Bessell (link to stammeringlaw.org.uk), 1994, Tasmanian Supreme Court.
- Equal Treatment Bench Book (link to judiciary.gov.uk) - the guidance for judges, including a section on disability;
- www.sentencetrouble.info - website aimed at anyone working with young people in and around the youth justice system;
- Talking...a way out of trouble (pdf, on www.stammering.org), from Magistrate magazine, May 2011;
- Young offenders and criminal justice (link to rcslt.org);
- Accommodating the communication disability associated with aphasia in the courtroom (blog post) - this and the following link are from the United States, so legal references are not applicable to the UK;
- Law enforcement response to persons with aphasia (link to policechiefmagazine.org);
- Appearing in court (link to stammeringlaw.org.uk) - includes discussion and links on 'special measures' allowed for some witnesses in criminal cases in England and Wales, including being examined through an intermediary such as a speech and language therapist. On the same website Prisons.