Bishop of St Albans calls for improved access to the criminal justice system and victim support for vulnerable people

On January 22nd 2015, the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, took part in a debate on improving access to the criminal justice system and victim support for people with autism spectrum disorders. The debate was precipitated by the case of Faruk Ali, a young autistic man who was attacked in Luton.

Bishop of St Albans The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for this debate. As has already been said, Faruk Ali comes from Luton, a town in my own diocese. Quite a number of people have raised that case with me and have been concerned about what happened, so I am glad to be able to involve myself in this debate. However, I will leave it to other noble Lords to comment on the specifics of the debate—I, too, have read the media on this—as clearly it raises a number of wider problems. At an early stage I pay tribute to all those people, both professional and volunteers, who work in the statutory services and in the charitable sector, who are doing a very good job at huge personal cost and with great expertise. We need to acknowledge what they are doing and affirm it before looking at some of the problems.

Between 500 and 800 people have been victims of disability hate crime in each of the last five years. Some of those will almost definitely have been people with ASD, although it is widely accepted, as has already been pointed out, that generally they are more likely to be victims than offenders. Indeed, one of the characteristics of ASD is that very often people give inordinate attention to obeying laws and rules, and find that the most comfortable context in which to operate.

Over the years I have known a number of people with ASD, and one family in particular whose son had Asperger’s syndrome. They are a deeply supportive family; I got to know the lad when he was in his 20s. On first meeting you would have no idea that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but when you got to know him you realised some of the problems it was creating. He found it difficult to relate to other people; being a young man in his 20s, he was very keen to make friends with the opposite sex, but he simply did not know how to relate to girls. He would often say things that could be taken as totally inappropriate and easily misunderstood. He was very distressed by that, but simply did not have the ability to know how to relate in any other way.

In a more extreme way, on occasion he would lose his temper, which meant that, being a full grown man, he could appear frightening. I was a neighbour of his family, and sometimes he would run out of his house in a fury and knock on my front door. I learnt over the years how to simply give him a place to sit down and calm him down. In fact he was fine, but just needed some help at that point. I am telling your Lordships this account simply to illustrate that this is an immensely complex issue, particularly for people who are meeting someone, perhaps in extreme circumstances, for the first time. It is not easy for police or other health professionals always to recognise immediately who they are dealing with.

The National Autistic Society recommends that,

“the child or adult with ASD carries an identity card”,

as Faruk Ali was,

“stating their personal details, emergency contacts and an explanation of their condition”.

However, for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, who longs to integrate into society—and his family were trying to help him to do that; he had moved into a flat to live by himself—that can be quite humiliating, because it marks you out as different. That was precisely what he did not want to do.

I will raise three areas of concern. The first is on police training, which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I know, because I have talked to people involved with training the police, that they are already expected to cover a huge amount of different areas of training—they do not sit around with nothing to do. Having said that, it is important that part of that training is on how to recognise when you may be dealing with someone with particular needs, especially ASD. The Prison Reform Trust recommends that:

“Legal professionals and practitioners who undertake criminal work, members of the judiciary and liaison and diversion staff should be required to participate in awareness training in mental health problems, learning disabilities and other learning, developmental and behavioural disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, communication difficulties and dyslexia”.

Does the Minister agree that that should equally apply to the police?

Secondly, we need to ensure that there are sufficient police interview advisers. Each police service has some of those, but again it is crucial that there are sufficient resources and that they are trained.

Thirdly, I will say a word about registered intermediaries. At the other end of the criminal justice system, we also need to ensure that people with ASD are given the right support. Back in 2012 the Prison Reform Trust published Fair Access to Justice?, which recommended that support should be made available for vulnerable defendants by registered intermediaries on the same basis as witnesses:

“The Advocacy Training Council … recognises that the handling and questioning of vulnerable people in court, in order to achieve best evidence, is a specialist skill; however, there is a lack of clarity concerning the provision and availability of intermediaries for defendants. While intermediaries appointed to support vulnerable witnesses are registered and subject to a stringent selection, training and accreditation process, and quality assurance, regulation and monitoring procedures, intermediaries for defendants are neither registered nor regulated. The practice of ‘registered’ and ‘non-registered’ intermediaries—potentially in the same trial and paid different fees—is anomalous. Intermediaries should be introduced into the statutory provision of special measures for vulnerable defendants”.

Finally, does the Minister agree that this recommendation is not only important but needs to be implemented?


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