Some weeks bring both depressing and incredibly motivational stories to me in my work for the Society. This week was unusual because it was the same event that bought both.
The horror stories at this week’s summit on access to justice for disabled people were frustratingly predictable: the wheelchair user who had to crawl up the stairs because no lift was available; the man wrongfully arrested – his arm broken in the process – because his sign language was mistaken for threatening behaviour; the serviceman who was locked in a police cell without food or water while suffering flashbacks of the war in Iraq due to post-traumatic stress disorder. And there were more.
Similarly disheartening experiences of disabled people and other minority groups attempting to access the justice system were recently reported in the Society’s own "Ensuring fairness, creating opportunities" guide. On more than one occasion since its publication in September, colleagues have expressed their alarm at the case studies it contained. Not least the wheelchair user who was forced to conduct a meeting in their solicitor’s office broom cupboard because no other room was accessible.
Government, police, courts, prisons and lawyers – it seems all of us in the justice system have lessons to learn. Equally, though, there are signs that the message is getting through. Simply staging a conference that brought Government ministers together with disabled people, disability organisations and the leading justice agencies after six months of consultation events was a major step forward. Better still, it was the first event of its kind in the UK. Tribute, in particular, to Capability Scotland for all their hard work.
And yet the conference highlighted good as well as bad practice. One woman who started shoplifting after a family bereavement described her offending as a cry for help. “And the justice system listened to it,” she added. She went on to explain how her lawyer, with the involvement of the judiciary, referred her to social workers, who helped her access the mental health services she “desperately needed”. A disabled man pointed out with humour and delight that police had been unable to arrest him at an anti-nuclear protest because there was no wheelchair accessible transport. A reminder that this agenda is not about favouritism, but fairness – in all its guises.
Then there was the solicitor I spoke to the other day. She explained that some of her clients with learning disabilities found formal correspondence intimidating. A simple way she had discovered to overcome this was by sending greetings cards instead. They contained the same essential information but were more inclusive and an infinitely friendlier way of doing business. To me, that is one aspect of the profession at its best.
Significant progress has been made in the last couple of years but much more needs to be done. Thankfully, there is a realisation that individual organisations can’t solve this alone. If proof were needed, this week’s summit showed we will only dismantle the barriers to justice by working together.Neil Stevenson is Director of Representation and Professional Support at the Law Society of Scotland