Access to justice
This chapter examines the experience of engaging with the criminal
justice system for people with disability. It highlights that people with
disability experience significant barriers to engaging with the criminal
justice system, including reporting to police and participating in
investigations and court proceedings.
Building on recent reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission (Human
Rights Commission) and the Australian Law Reform Commission (Law Reform
Commission), this chapter examines a series of measures put forward by
witnesses, that seek to ensure Australia meets its international obligations to
improve access to justice for people with disability and its moral obligation
to protect people with disability from violence, abuse and neglect.
Access to justice
The committee heard that people with disability are particularly
disadvantaged in seeking access to justice and are not adequately supported by
existing legal systems.
A number of submissions recommended legislative and system reforms in the
justice system to provide better support for people with disability.
The committee notes two recent national inquiries by the Law Reform
Commission and the Human Rights Commission into the issue of access to justice
for people with disability. These inquiries have identified significant
barriers for people with disability in reporting crime, and made a series of recommendations
to improve Australia's criminal justice system. These issues are discussed later
in this chapter.
Under Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities (Disability Convention), Australia is obliged to:
access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others,
including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate
accommodations, in order to facilitate their effective role as direct and
indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings,
including at investigative and other preliminary stages.
This includes promoting 'appropriate training for those working in the
field of administration of justice, including police and prison staff'.
The 2012 Civil Society Report to the United Nations Committee on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Civil Society Report) noted that
people with disability experience significant barriers in participating in
Australian legal systems 'with many finding access to justice too difficult,
hostile or ineffectual'.
The report made a series of recommendations to improve access to justice for
people with disability, including:
incorporating compulsory modules on working with people with
disability into training programs for police, prison officers, lawyers,
judicial officers and court staff;
developing comprehensive, gender and culture specific social
support programs and systems to identify and prevent the circumstances that
contribute to children and young people with disability coming into contact or
entering the juvenile justice system; and
implementing a range of gender and culture specific diversionary
programs and mechanisms and community-based sentencing options that are
integrated with flexible disability support packages and social support
programs to prevent adults with disability coming into contact or entering the
criminal justice system.
In its concluding observations on the initial report of Australia, the United
Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
(UN Disability Committee) expressed concern about access to justice for people
with disability, particularly:
...the lack of training for judicial officers, legal
practitioners and court staff on ensuring access to justice for persons with
disabilities, as well as lack of guidance on how to access justice for persons
The UN Disability Committee recommended a number of measures to improve
access to justice for people with disability, including:
that state and territory legislation and policy be amended to
incorporate standard and compulsory modules on working with persons with
disabilities into training programs for police, prison officers, lawyers,
judicial officers and court staff;
that persons with disability are provided equal substantive and
procedural guarantees as others in the context of criminal proceedings to
ensure that no diversion programs are implemented that transfer individuals to
mental health services rather than providing such services on the basis of the
individual's free and informed consent; and
that all persons with disabilities who are accused of crimes and
are currently detained in jails and institutions without a trial are promptly
allowed to defend themselves against criminal charges and are provided with
required support and accommodation to facilitate their effective participation.
Barriers and challenges
Barriers to access to justice
In February 2014, the Human Rights Commission's report, Equal Before
the Law: Towards Disability Justice Strategies, found that access to
justice for people with disability is a 'significant issue in every
jurisdiction in Australia', particularly for people with multiple support
The report identified the following key barriers to access to justice for people
support, programs and assistance to prevent violence and disadvantage and
address a range of health and social risk factors may not be available to some
people with disabilities;
with disabilities do not receive the support, adjustments or aids they need to
access protections, to begin or defend criminal matters, or to participate in
criminal justice processes;
attitudes and assumptions about people with disabilities often result in people
with disabilities being viewed as unreliable, not credible or not capable of
giving evidence, making legal decisions or participating in legal proceedings;
support, accommodation and programs may not be provided to people with
disabilities when they are considered unable to understand or respond to
criminal charges made against them ('unfit to plead'); and
adjustments and aids may not be provided to prisoners with disabilities so that
they can meet basic human needs and participate in prison life.
Similar barriers were identified by the Law Reform Commission in its
August 2014 report on equal recognition and legal capacity for people with
disability under Commonwealth legal frameworks, Equality, Capacity and
Disability in Commonwealth Laws. The Law Reform
Commission report identified the following barriers for people with disability:
accessing the necessary support, adjustments or aids to participate in the
associated with giving instructions to legal representatives and capacity to participate
- the costs
associated with legal representation; and
and stereotypes about the reliability and credibility of people with disability
In 2014 the Productivity Commission's (PC) inquiry into Australia's
civil justice system, Access to Justice Arrangements, highlighted
widespread concerns that Australia's civil justice system is 'too slow, too
expensive and too adversarial'. The report highlighted that '[d]isadvantaged
Australians are more susceptible to, and less equipped to deal with, legal
disputes' and that '[g]overnments have a role in assisting these individuals'. 
The PC's inquiry found that the 'complexities of the civil justice system
may be particularly challenging to navigate for people experiencing
disadvantage and for some people with disabilities'.
The PC noted that particular groups require specific assistance to develop
legal capacity, including the homeless, people with disability and Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people:
People with disabilities find many aspects of the civil
justice system, and the mainstream services offered, difficult to access. Even
where mainstream services have attempted to cater for people with disabilities,
these services may still be inaccessible.
Barriers to access to justice were also highlighted by a number of
submitters to this inquiry.
Dr Jessica Cadwallader, representing People with Disability Australia as part
of the Australian Cross Disability Alliance (Disability Alliance), told the
committee that eliminating these barriers is integral to ensuring crimes
against people with disability are prosecuted:
Without actually making access to justice for people with
disability a responsibility of the justice system, you will not get people with
disability able to come forward and give reports, have those reports taken and
have them taken seriously, investigated and recommended for prosecution.
Without those kinds of pathways through the justice system, you wind up with
administrative responses often being the primary response to what is, in fact,
a crime...Unless access to justice is addressed across Australia for all people
with disability, then you are not going to see the kinds of change within the
service system that you need. Unless there are actual criminal responses to
violence against people with disability, you are not going to see the level of
deterrence that exists for the rest of the community. We know that perpetrators
will target those who they can get away with targeting and, unless access to
justice is addressed across the board, that will remain the case.
The committee heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
with disability experience particular barriers to access to justice. The Human
Rights Commission highlighted the significant barriers to accessing advocacy
and legal services, especially in regional and remote areas, noting:
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people
from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds with disabilities access
to culturally competent services with disability expertise, and Aboriginal
legal services, was even harder.
Both the Human Rights Commission and the Law Reform Commission recommended
strategies to overcome barriers to access to justice. These strategies are
examined further in this
Barriers to reporting to police
A number of submitters and witnesses highlighted the challenges faced by
people with disability when seeking to report allegations or incidents directly
to police. These submitters highlighted that due to these barriers, crimes are
often not reported.
Some submitters cited a 2012 report on the National Survey on Abuse of
People with Disabilities in the United States that found nearly half of victims
with disabilities did not report abuse to authorities. For those who reported
abuse, nearly 54 per cent said that nothing happened and in fewer than 10 per
cent of reported cases was the perpetrator arrested.
It is telling that submitters quoted overseas reports, but were unable to cite
relevant Australian studies. The lack of reliable Australian statistical data
has been discussed previously in chapter three.
A 2014 report by Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
(VEOHRC), Beyond Doubt, on the experiences of people with disabilities
reporting crime highlighted that level of crime experienced by people with
disability in Victoria and across Australia is 'substantial...in spite of – and
sometimes the result of – systems that are designed to provide support and
It found that the under-representation of people with disability in the
available recorded victims of crime data indicates that cases are either not
reported, not making it through the justice system or that disability has not
The Beyond Doubt report found that people with disability face
significant and complex barriers when reporting crime to police, including:
lack of access to information about how to identify and report a
feelings of shame and embarrassment;
fear of retribution from the alleged perpetrator;
lack of support for people with communication needs;
fear of consequences for victims by families and carers; and
fear of not being believed or seem as lacking credibility when
reporting a crime to police.
The Beyond Doubt report made a series of recommendations for the
Victoria Police, Office of the Public Advocate, courts, Departments of Justice
and Health and Human Services that aim to:
...establish clear processes for support and referral and to
build community and organisational partnerships to assist Victoria Police to
increase capability, to understand the expectations about making reasonable
adjustments and to do its job more effectively.
Evidence to the committee, including the Victorian Ombudsman's 2015
report, suggests that that it is not clear how these recommendations have been
incorporated into internal police mechanisms in Victoria or other
jurisdictions. Submitters and witnesses highlighted that people with disability
continue to experience challenges in reporting to police.
The committee heard that in some cases, police treat reports of violence
from people with disability differently if they are perceived to be 'cared for'
in an institution or residential setting. The Disability Alliance highlighted
Police often treat reports of violence, abuse and neglect
experienced by people with disability differently to people without disability.
This is particularly the case where there is a perception that the person with
disability is already being 'cared' for in an institutional or residential
setting, even when the violence, abuse and neglect has been reported as
occurring in that facility. There is an assumption that the facility deals with
people with disability and that it is not a police matter. In many cases,
people with disability are returned back to these facilities, and these incidences
remain 'hidden' and unacknowledged.
Where incidents are reported, the committee heard that people with
disability are not supported by police to seek further investigation or
conviction in relation to reports of violence, abuse or neglect. In many cases,
witnesses with disability and the evidence they provide are not perceived as
'credible'. Disability Alliance provided the committee with evidence from over
70 victims of abuse, violence or neglect, many of who attempted to report to
the police. In most cases, these investigations did not proceed due to a
perceived lack of evidence or credibility of witnesses with disability (see Box
6.1 and Box 6.2).
Box 6.1: Experience of reporting to police
Christine, a 39 year-old woman with intellectual disability, was repeatedly raped and bashed in
one week by several different men…Christine was too scared to tell the [residential facility]
worker what had happened to her because she thought she would 'get into trouble'. Two days later,
the woman disclosed the rapes to her friend who helped her report the rapes to the police. Three of
the five police initially involved in interviewing her and taking her statement, asked her friend if
the woman might be 'making it up'. The detectives investigating the case admitted that, although
there was now clear evidence that the rapes occurred, there was 'little likelihood' of a conviction
due to the fact that the woman 'has an intellectual disability'.
Frances was physically beaten by a group of young girls at a regional TAFE [Technical and
Further Education] institute. The violent attack was captured on CCTV[closed-circuit television]
footage. The local police advised Frances not to pursue charges because she was 'mentally
retarded' and there would be 'no chance of any conviction' against the perpetrators.
Peta has intellectual disability and lives in supported accommodation. She was raped by a support
worker. The police were notified, and although believing Peta's evidence, they felt that they
wouldn't be able to obtain a conviction against the support worker because Peta's testimony would
be deemed unreliable by the court. Consequently, the police didn't pursue the investigation. The
support worker is still working for the same organisation, but at a different facility.
Source: Australian Cross Disability Alliance, Supplementary Submission 147, pp 2–7.
Box 6.2: Experience of reporting to police – Ms Kobie Hicks
Ms Kobie Hicks, who has an intellectual disability, told the committee of her experience reporting
incidents of sexual abuse to police:
I reported a sexual abuse that happened to me when I was a child. It was
happening, from what I can remember, from grade four right up until I was 19.
The police were saying there was no evidence, but I can give a description of
the house, what I was wearing. I found that the police did not help me very
much. They did not want to listen to me…They wrote everything in the report,
but they asked the person who did it to me and that is when they turned and
said that there was no evidence…They said, 'The case is closed. There is no
evidence. Don't bother.' That is how I was spoken to by a police officer. They
were not going to go any further, so 'drop it'. There is no point.
Ms Hicks recommended to the committee greater support for people with disability when dealing
with policy and the justice system:
I think the police should give them a bit more time or ask them to get someone
in to help them, with making a statement, like an advocate. They should look
into it a lot more. Someone reporting a rape or crime—or verbal abuse, like I
did when I was a child; no-one looked into it. They just left me in there. They
should open up a case and keep an eye on the child or adult, whatever it comes
down to. I do think the police should ask for someone from a service provider
to help them all, another member of the family or something.
Source: Ms Kobie Hicks, Committee Hansard, Sydney, 27 August 2015, p. 51.
The committee heard that in some cases, people with disability are able
to access vulnerable witness support services. For example, in Queensland, children
and people with 'impairment of the mind' have access to a recorded interview
undertaken by specially trained police officers and with a support person under
section 93A of the Evidence Act 1977.
Ms Leona Berrie, manager of Working Alongside People with Intellectual and
Learning Disabilities – Sexual Violence Prevention Association (WWILD)
explained how the process is meant to work in practice, noting that she has not
yet seen a victim progress to the court stage:
If it is a sexual offence, a female police officer is offered
as a matter of course and/or an appointment is made for when a female officer
can be made available. At this point, you might raise issues of disability,
capacity and any particular issues of cognitive capacity or intellectual
disability. On this basis, a 93A, as it is called in Queensland, or a recorded
interview, is offered without any further proof of the person's disability.
This type of interview is similar to interviews with child
witnesses and is conducted by people who are trained in that area, and then a
support person is also made available or offered to the person—somebody
suitable who they may wish to be there. The interview is conducted, and it is
done in a safe and respectful way that avoids unnecessary retraumatisation,
and, perhaps, from there an investigation is conducted.
There may be little evidence to proceed—and, if that is the
case, this is communicated to the client in a sensitive way by the police
themselves and not left to others to pass this information on—or the matter is
investigated and charges are laid. Charges are laid and sent to the DPP, and
they agree to prosecute the case without extensive psychological testing to
assess witness credibility. The person pleads guilty and the trial is avoided,
in the ideal set of circumstances; or a trial is set and special witness
provisions are put in place to avoid traumatising the victim further through
that process. Special witness provisions are agreed to easily and readily without
extensive psychological assessment being required. The perpetrator is found
guilty and sent to jail for the appropriate amount of time. That is when things
Other jurisdictions offer similar support programs for 'vulnerable
witnesses', including people with disability. For example, the New South Wales
(NSW) Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) may refer vulnerable
adult witnesses, including people with disability, to the Witness Assistance
Service (WAS). Under the WAS Early Referral and Case Management Best Practice
Protocol, prosecution witnesses with a disability are referred to the WAS at
the 'earliest opportunity'. The WAS aims to 'minimise stress and potential
re-traumatisation' and 'enable witnesses to give their evidence to the best of
their ability. Services provided by WAS include:
Information about rights, entitlements, the legal process and
Assessment and case management planning, including referral for
ongoing counselling and other support services and liaison with prosecutors;
Preparation and coordination of court support, including crisis
counselling and support in relation to the impact of the legal process.
Similarly, the South Australian ODPP noted that it provides WAS to
ensure that all witnesses of crime and their immediate family have access to
information and support services, and are aware of their rights and
responsibilities when dealing with the criminal justice system.
South Australia has recently developed a further set of guidelines, Supporting
vulnerable witnesses in the giving of evidence: guidelines for securing best
evidence, as part of their Disability Justice Plan 2014–2017 (Justice
Plan) (see below). The new guidelines 'aim to make the criminal justice system
more accessible and responsive to the needs of people with disability'.
More commonly, however, the committee heard that there were limited
supports available for people with disability, particularly for people who
require communication assistance. In some cases, people with a physical
disability who require communication assistance may be subjected to
psychological testing to determine their capacity to provide evidence, even
though they have no psychological impairment (see Box 6.3).
Box 6.3: Experience of reporting to police – Ms Jules Anderson
Ms Jules Anderson, a former resident at Yooralla, told the committee of the experience of reporting
incidents of abuse by staff to the police. As Ms Anderson has cerebral palsy, she was required to
undergo a psychological assessment to determine whether she had the intellectual capacity to give
It was a very foreign environment, and I was scared. I thought a lot of it was to
do with the fact that, having a disability, a lot of it I struggled with, having to go
into such detail and things. I did not know why I had to go to a special… psychologist for assessment. I would not lie about a thing like that. I still did
have to go through that, which was humiliating, to say the least.
Ms Anderson's support person told the committee:
Jules questioned why she had to go through that process when she is quite
capable of making decisions for herself and on behalf of herself.
Source: Miss Jules Anderson, Committee in camera Hansard, Melbourne, 30 June 2015, pp 12-13.
Evidence to the committee suggested that the experience of reporting to
police is commonly characterised by a lack of appropriate support, and that
these supports are not systematically available. Ms Berrie from WWILD outlined
the more common response from police in responding to allegations of sexual
abuse from women with disability:
A police officer—usually a male—may refuse to make an
appointment time and encourage you to just come down and, even though someone
of the same sex should be offered to take the statement according to
interagency guidelines around responding to a report of sexual assault, a
female detective is not made available. The VoC [victim of crime] worker may
then request a female detective and the worker is told by the officer perhaps
something along the lines that they have been in the force for 20 years and
there is nothing that they could be told that has not been heard before or that
would shock them and that they are going to need to get used to telling the
story to men because there will be a lot of men involved if it goes to trial. A
support person is not offered or, if it is suggested, it is discouraged or
denied blanketly when requested.
At this point, you may also raise issues of intellectual
disability or cognitive capacity, and at this stage somebody, a detective or an
officer, may state that they would require proof of this disability before
agreeing to record the interview. When we raise that we are concerned about
somebody's capacity, we may be told something completely inappropriate around
people being old enough to know—as in one instance, with one officer saying to
us, 'She's old enough to know that people shouldn't touch her boobies.' Parents
are asked if they are sure they want to report it, because, 'There isn't much
in this.' So there is that discouraging that happens before you have even had
Ms Berrie noted that another common situation is that disability is not
recognised at the point of contact and the person is not offered any support,
resulting in a 'poorly examined written statement' being taken:
...once it has been done badly there seems to be little going
back. If it was just taken in the first instance and a really bad job has been
done of it, no-one then seems to offer a retaking of a statement. That seems to
be the end of the road and it is pretty hard to push beyond that.
In the instance where an interview is not conducted, the
victim may make a decision not to go ahead in making a formal statement, which
is understandable considering the discouragement they might have had up to that
point. The message is clear: it is not a crime worth reporting; it is too
complicated; it probably did not happen; consent is straightforward; if it did
happen, a person probably consented; it is too hard to investigate and, even if
we did, we would not find anything, and, even if we did find something, it has
zero chance of getting a conviction. If the interview is conducted and the 93A
interview has not been granted, they are likely to be interviewed by someone
who does not have the training to interview a vulnerable witness, the person's
communication needs are not taken into account and a less-than-optimum
statement is taken from the witness.
The police may, after this point, still decide to investigate
and they may speak to the accused person. The accused person denies it. The
police tell the family member, the VoC [victim of crime] worker, the person
supporting their son or daughter or the person with a disability things like,
'I got a good vibe off the person we interviewed and he seemed really concerned;
his version doesn't seem to match your version,' and so on and so forth. So no
genuine attempts to investigate, and the accused person's version of events
being held up as the true account.
From that point, often what happens is the police may still
say that there is not enough evidence, and that may be the case, or they may
say, based on the belief of this contradicting account by the accused person,
that the case is unfounded, which is more to say that it did not happen. The
significance of that is that then people do not have the ability to seek
financial resources, say, from Victims Assist Queensland, because they are
making a decision based on probabilities and if the police are saying not just
that there is not enough evidence but that it did not happen...
Evidence presented to the inquiry shows that people with disability
experience significant barriers in seeking access to justice, particularly
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people from culturally and
linguistically diverse communities. These barriers include challenges in
reporting abuse, violence and neglect to police, which is likely to result in
crimes going unreported or not adequately investigated.
The committee is concerned that the currently available supports for
vulnerable witnesses are under-utilised and that people with disability are
discouraged from reporting crimes, or subjected to discriminatory tests to
prove their legal capacity.
The committee is concerned that there are not enough supports for people
with disability seeking to access justice.
The committee recognises recommendations of VEOHRC report highlighting
the importance of training and support for police in assisting people with
disability, and suggests these recommendations should be considered nationally.
Strategies to address barriers
Access to justice strategies
To address the barriers people with disability face in seeking access to
justice, the Human Rights Commission report, Equal Before the Law,
recommended that each jurisdiction should develop 'holistic, over‑arching'
disability justice strategies that focus on the following outcomes:
safety of people with disabilities and freedom from violence;
effective access to justice for people with disabilities;
respect for inherent dignity and individual autonomy including
the freedom to make one’s own decisions; and
full and effective participation and inclusion in the community.
The Human Rights Commission report emphasised that strategies should
address the following core set of principles:
communications – Communication is essential to personal autonomy and
decision-making. Securing effective and appropriate communication as a right
should be the cornerstone of any Disability Justice Strategy.
intervention and diversion – Early intervention and wherever possible diversion
into appropriate programs can both enhance the lives of people with
disabilities and support the interests of justice.
service capacity – Increased service capacity and support should be
training – Effective training should address the rights of people with
disabilities and prevention of and appropriate responses to violence and abuse,
including gender-based violence.
accountability and monitoring – People with disabilities, including children
with disabilities, are consulted and actively involved as equal partners in the
development, implementation and monitoring of policies, programs and legislation
to improve access to justice.
policies and frameworks – Specific measures to address the intersection of
disability and gender should be adopted in legislation, policies and programs
to achieve appropriate understanding and responses by service providers.
The report highlighted that the Justice Plan in South Australia is a
best practice example of the disability justice strategies and urged all
...consult with South
Australia and to learn from experiences there. If we coordinate, inform and
monitor in a planned manner barriers will be removed faster and gaps bridged
sooner. The services we have will be improved and new and better ones
developed. The human rights of people with disabilities will be better
respected, their standard of living will improve and the criminal justice
system will become less of a presence in their lives.
Case study – South Australia –
Disability Justice Plan
The South Australian Government is currently progressing wide-ranging
reforms to its justice system. The Justice Plan was launched in 2014 and aims
to make the criminal justice system more accessible and responsive to the needs
of people with disability.
During his second reading speech on the Statutes Amendment (Vulnerable
Witnesses) Bill 2015 (the Bill), the South Australian Attorney-General, the
Hon. John Rau, noted the Bill was developed in close consultation with the
disability sector. Mr Rau noted the South Australian government had committed
$3.246 million over four years to implement the Justice Plan.
The development of the Justice Plan was a recommendation by the former
Social Inclusion Board's report: Strong Voices: A Blueprint to Enhance Life
and Claim the Rights of People with Disability in South Australia (2012–2020).
The Social Inclusion Board undertook an extensive two-year consultation process
which 'identified a need for reform to better identify and respond to the needs
of people with disability in the criminal justice system, whether they are a
victim, witness or a person accused of a crime'.
The Justice Plan has four key aims:
uphold, protect and promote the rights of people with disability;
support vulnerable victims and witnesses in the giving of
support people with disability accused or convicted of a crime; and
continuously monitor and improve performance.
A number of key priority actions under the Justice Plan were introduced
in the Bill 2015. The Bill was passed by the South Australian Parliament on 2
July 2015 and incorporates major changes to the Evidence Act 1929, which
aims to ensure that people with disability, whether as victims, witnesses,
suspects or defendants, are better served by the justice system.
According to the South Australian Attorney-General's Department, the key
changes are to:
provide victims, witnesses or defendants with complex
communication needs a general entitlement to have a communication assistant
present for any contact with the criminal justice system;
minimise the number of times vulnerable witnesses have to recount
their experiences by providing alternative measures for their evidence to be
presented to the court, including the use of pre-recorded evidence and
investigative interviews at trial;
tackle the misconception that disability denotes 'unreliability';
enhance the supports available for vulnerable victims, witnesses
and defendants, both in and out of court;
allow the evidence of vulnerable witnesses to be taken in
informal surroundings; and
extend the priority listing of sexual assault trials to those
where the complainant has a disability that adversely affects their capacity to
Representatives from the South Australian Attorney-General's Department
told the committee that the Justice Plan has strong support from people with
disability and is being implemented in close consultation with the community:
The plan is being implemented in close consultation with
people with lived experience, so we are directly involving them and hearing
their feedback in terms of driving the plan forward through whatever consultative
or governance mechanisms are in place. I sit here with cautious optimism, but
certainly we are grateful that there has been very wide support for the plan,
bearing in mind that it will take four years in some instances to have full
evidence of what outcomes have been achieved over those four years. I am a
believer that significant change has occurred and significant further change
will occur. But ultimately what has been at the heart of this, apart from
receiving some outstanding expert advice, is direct engagement of people with
the lived experience.
A significant aspect of the Justice Plan includes assisting police to
better identify and respond to the needs of people with disability.
Representatives from the South Australian Police highlighted the importance of
specialised training for police officers in assisting people with disability,
and expressed support for the new specialist training programs that will be
introduced under the Justice Plan:
You need ongoing training. You need refresher training. You
need constant assessments and feedback so you do not fall back into bad habits.
It is always continual learning. I think that is what we are hoping for with
this specialist training. There is not a lot of research in interviewing people
who are nonverbal; but, hopefully, working with the training provider, we can
come up with recognised techniques.
Ms Kelly Vincent, a South Australian Member of Parliament who was instrumental
in driving these reforms, pointed out to the committee that 'legislation alone
will not make all the difference and there remain significant social barriers
to overcome and end violence against people with disabilities.'
Ms Vincent went on to describe a range of other issues that must be
addressed as a whole of issue move to end violence against people with
accessible information on personal safety;
support for people with disability from services that assist
people in leaving situations of violence;
accessibility of transport to improve independence;
neglect from mainstream health services; and
Support for a national implementation of similar justice strategies was
recommended by a few different submitters.
The committee recognises the need for sector wide reforms, as proposed
by the Human Rights Commission, to improve the ability of police and the
justice system to identify and respond to allegations of abuse, and support
people with disabilities in reporting and investigating.
The committee commends the positive work undertaken in South Australia
as part of the Justice Plan as an excellent step towards ensuring people with
disability are able to engage more effectively with the criminal justice system
The committee believes there is a critical need for these reforms to be considered
nationally, drawing from evidence-based research on the needs of people with
Another key aspect to improving access to justice is providing
assistance to increase the legal capacity of people with disability to provide
The Law Reform Commission report, Equality, Capacity and Disability
in Commonwealth Laws investigated the issue of legal incapacity and how it
impacted on a person's access to justice, particularly around their deemed capacity
to provide evidence in criminal matters.
The key recommendation of that report was the implementation of a
Commonwealth supported decision-making model based on the role of 'supporters' and 'representatives', including that the existing tests
of a person's capacity to exercise their legal rights or participate in the
legal process be reformed, consistent with the national decision-making
The Law Reform Commission highlighted that these legal reforms need to be
accompanied by appropriate support services for people with disability:
Legal reform is
likely to have limited practical impact if people do not have access to the
support necessary to enable them to participate in legal processes.
Some of the Law Reform Commission's key recommendations to improve
participation by people with disability in the legal process at the
Commonwealth level include:
providing for witnesses who need support to have a support person
present while giving evidence;
providing for witnesses who need support to provide evidence in a
way that enables them to understand questions and communicate answers; and
providing guidance for judicial officers on how courts can
support people with disability to give evidence.
The recommendations of the Law Reform Commission report were supported
by the UN Disability Committee, which recommended in its 2013 concluding
the current inquiry process be effectively used to take immediate
steps to replace substitute decision-making with supported decision-making and
provides a wide range of measures which respect the person’s autonomy, will and
provide training, in consultation and cooperation with persons
with disabilities and their representative organizations, at the national,
regional and local levels for all actors, including civil servants, judges, and
social workers, on the recognition of the legal capacity of persons with
disabilities and on the primacy of supported decision-making mechanisms in the
exercise of legal capacity.
One aspect of a supported decision-making model includes the use of
intermediaries, such as those used in the United Kingdom (UK). Ms Mary
Woodward, who worked as a Registered Intermediary in the UK between 2009 and
2011, recommended the introduction of a similar program in Australia, noting
that evaluations of the UK program:
...have been overwhelmingly positive, with a number of reported
emerging benefits, including the potential to assist in bringing offenders to
justice; increase access to justice; contribute to cost savings; assist in
identifying witness needs; and inform appropriate interviewing and questioning
In England and Wales, vulnerable witnesses may be assisted to give
evidence in criminal proceedings by registered intermediaries (see Box 6.4). In
2013, Northern Ireland piloted a registered intermediary scheme to assist
vulnerable victims, witnesses, suspects and defendants with significant
communication deficits. The pilot was extended through 2015 following an
evaluation of the pilot in November 2014.
Box 6.4: United Kingdom – Registered intermediaries
The UK Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allows for a range of special measures for
cases involving vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to give their best evidence in court,
including the use of an intermediary. In 2004, the UK government piloted the Witness
Intermediary Scheme (WIS). In 2008, the WIS was implemented nationally and is available across
England and Wales.
The role of the registered intermediary is to facilitate:
…two-way communication between the witness and any other participants in the
criminal justice process to ensure that communication with the witness is as
complete, coherent and accurate as possible. This includes communication at
meetings between the witness and the police and/or the Crown Prosecution Service
(CPS), in the ABE [Achieving Best Evidence] interview, during any identification
procedures and during the trial process. It may also include communication at
meetings between a defence witness or a defendant and the defence solicitor.
An intermediary appointed through the WIS must be a professional who has been recruited,
selected and accredited by the Ministry of Justice and registered on the WIS national database.
Intermediaries are impartial and neutral and are obliged to serve the court.
The functions of Registered Intermediaries in the criminal justice system may include:
- • the police officer or CPS lawyer in the case identifies that the witness might benefit
from the assistance of a Registered Intermediary;
- the police officer or CPS lawyer contact the WIS Matching Service run by the National
Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) which identifies and contacts a Registered
Intermediary with the necessary skill sets available to conduct the work;
- the Registered Intermediary conducts the assessment and provide the interviewing
police officer with a preliminary report to enable planning for the ABE interview and is
present in order to advise and assist with communication if required;
- prior to trial the Registered Intermediary may attend the witness on their court
familiarisation visit and will inform the Witness Service of any relevant matters
regarding the witness’s care and well-being;
- before the witness gives evidence the Registered Intermediary must be involved in a ‘ground rules’ hearing with the trial judge and advocates to agree all the matters
regarding the witness giving evidence with the Registered Intermediary’s assistance;
- Registered Intermediaries assist during the giving of evidence, usually sitting alongside
the witness as they give evidence from the TV link room at the court. The extent to
which they intervene during the evidence of the witness depends on the witness and also
the extent to which the Ground Rules are followed; and
- Registered Intermediaries have also been asked to assist in matters which are ancillary to
the trial, namely, to help a witness who is giving a victim impact statement (either by
video or a written statement) and to help in the explanation to a witness about the
outcome of the case.
Section 104 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (not yet implemented) will allow for certain
vulnerable accused to give oral evidence at trial with the assistance of an intermediary.
Source: United Kingdom Ministry of Justice, The Registered Intermediary Procedural Guidance
Material, February 2012, pp 3-13, http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/docs/ri_proceduralguidancemanual _2012.pdf (accessed 17 September 2015).
Ms Woodward told the committee of one example where she had assisted a
person with communication difficulties during a trial:
I was called in at the pretrial stage to facilitate the communication
with a 45-year-old lady who had borderline personality disorder and post traumatic
stress disorder. At the time, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act in
a secure psychiatric hospital due to significant risks of self-harm and
suicide. She disclosed, alongside her sibling, historical sexual abuse by her
father. She had already given five videoed police interviews by the time I was
called in, and they were used as her evidence-in-chief. The Crown Prosecution
Service...were concerned that her significant mental health difficulties would
prevent her from being able to participate in the trial proceedings...they knew
how an intermediary could help facilitate the communication of someone with
significant mental health difficulties...I conducted an assessment of her
communication and found that she was superficially a very articulate lady. She
did have some difficulties processing more complex language but, as her mental
health deteriorated, so did her communication skills—to the extent that when it
got really bad she would just completely shut down. Obviously, if that were to
happen during questioning she would not be able to continue. I advised the
court on the impact of her mental health on communication and told them about
some strategies that might be adopted to enable her to give evidence. The judge
agreed to all my recommendations and, with my assistance, she was
cross-examined via video link from her hospital; she was not safe to leave the
hospital. Largely as a result of her evidence, the defendant was convicted of
22 out of 23 counts and sentenced to 14 years in prison. At sentencing, the
judge commended everyone who had enabled her to give evidence, including me as
The committee notes that an intermediary role, called a 'communication
assistant', will be introduced in South Australia as part of the Justice Plan. Ms
Woodward raised concern that the proposed model of support in South Australia
While I love to think that we are all altruistic, I have a
lot of experience in this and I would not do that role for free. It carries a
lot of responsibility and it is high stakes and high pressure. I do worry about
whether they would be recruiting to that role people with the right motivation,
expertise and experience.
Dr Stephen Brock from the South Australian Attorney-General's Department
told the committee the South Australian government was still refining the
'communication assistant' role:
At this point in time we are still working through and still
refining it. We will also be looking at further refining it with our partner
from the NGO sector, once that has been identified...The communication
assistance scheme is one component of the broader Disability Justice Plan, and
we will be working closely with the implementation of the specialist training.
The committee supports the recommendations made by the Law Reform
Commission on the importance of introducing supported-decision making models.
The committee recognises the need for reforms to the criminal justice
system that give agency to people with disability to enable them to speak for
themselves, and for their evidence to be considered and acted upon.
Needs of specific groups
Women and girls
The committee was particularly concerned by evidence that shows that
women with disability experience particularly high rates of violence, including
family and domestic violence. In its concluding observations, the UN Disability
Committee expressed particular concern about reports of 'high rates of violence
perpetrated against women and girls living in institutions and other segregated
settings'. The UN Disability Committee recommended that Australia:
investigation, without delay, into situations of violence, exploitation and
abuse experienced by women and girls with disabilities in institutional
settings, and to take appropriate measures on the findings.
Evidence to the committee shows that domestic and family violence occurs
both outside and within institutions and residential settings. The Disability
Alliance highlighted that legislation aimed at addressing violence against
women offers little protection for people with disability in residential
It is generally understood in the context of 'domestic',
'spousal', 'intimate partner' or 'family' violence, and this conceptualisation
is reflected in most domestic and family violence legislation in Australia.
However, domestic and family violence legislation differs across States and
Territories - providing different levels of protection and definitions of what
constitutes 'domestic violence' and/or 'family violence' and what constitutes a
'domestic relationship'. Some broader definitions include residential settings,
such as group homes and institutions, where people with disability often live
and interact domestically with co-residents, support workers, service managers,
visitors and a range of other staff. However, even where there are broader
definitions, domestic and family violence legislation is rarely utilised,
largely because violence perpetrated against people with disability in
institutional and residential settings is not characterised as domestic/family
violence and rarely are domestic violence related interventions deployed to
deal with this type of violence. Where narrower definitions apply, which is the
case in most domestic and family violence legislation, people with disability
in institutional and residential settings are completely excluded from these protections.
Dr Jessica Cadwallader from the Disability Alliance told the committee:
...often legislation will wind up being used in ways that imply
that if violence occurs in a disability service that perhaps police do not need
to respond in quite the same way or the services do not need to be brought in.
The referral pathways do not necessarily map together in ways that ensure that
people with disability have access to the same kinds of supports as anyone else.
The Human Rights Commission urged the committee to consider the outcome
report of the Stop the Violence Project's (STVP) 2013 national symposium on
violence against women and girls with disability funded by the Australian
Government under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and
their Children 2010-2022 (National Plan).
The STVP outcome report noted that women and girls with disability
experience violence at 'higher rates, more frequently, for longer, in more
ways, and by more perpetrators'.
For women with disability in institutions, the President of Women with
Disabilities Australia, Ms Karin Swift, noted:
Women and girls with disabilities who live in institutions
experience, and are at significant risk of violence. For many, violence is a
day to day reality of their lives and frequently involves sustained and
multiple episodes. Yet violence perpetrated against women and girls with
disabilities in institutions is rarely characterised as domestic violence and
rarely are domestic violence related interventions deployed to deal with this
type of violence.
The STVP outcome report recommended a range of strategies to address
violence against women and girls with disability, including strengthening
justice and legal workforce training to recognise and support disclosure and redress
of incidents of violence, particularly family and domestic violence, and
improving access to justice for women and girls with disability experiencing or
at risk of violence.
However, the Disability Alliance was critical that the STVP was 'limited
...as its contracted focus was on building the evidence base to
reform service provision for women with disability who are experiencing or at
risk of violence. The STVP was unable to 'address the myriad issues and
complexities inherent in the multiple forms of violence perpetrated against
women with disabilities'.
A number of witnesses and submitters highlighted the need for improved
access for people with disability to a range of mainstream family violence support
services. For example, under existing domestic violence legislation in most
states and territories (except NSW) does not recognise residential facilities
for people with disability as places that domestic violence may occur. Ms
Christina Ryan, General Manager at Advocacy for Inclusion, told the committee
that in most states and territories:
...you cannot actually stick your hand up and say, 'I've got
violence happening in my home that needs to be responded to.' There is no way
that you can access the services that are appropriate to getting outcomes
through that. We struggle enormously with that barrier. There are some real
solutions that we could find. In fact, in New South Wales, where these
households are recognised under the domestic violence legislation, they are
able to change some of those outcomes. It also has raised enormous awareness
around the fact that this is violence, naming it. People do not see that it is
a form of violence. They do not get that it is abuse.
The committee heard that under the National Plan, the Australian Government
is undertaking a series of initiatives to address family violence for people
with disability The Department of Social Services submitted that the second
action plan (2013-2016) of the National Plan:
...has a strong focus on better understanding and responding to
people’s diverse experiences of violence, including for people with disability.
It also includes initiatives to help better identify, support and respond to
women with disability experiencing, or at risk of, family and domestic violence
and sexual assault.
However, a number of submitters argued that the National Plan is not
integrated with the National Disability Strategy and does not adequately
address family violence for people with disability in residential settings.
WWILD submitted that within the National Plan:
...there is little emphasis on girls with disabilities, it
focuses only on traditional notions of domestic/family violence and sexual
assault (in the context of intimate partner relationships only), and fails to
address the many other forms of violence perpetrated against women and girls
with disabilities, such as violence in institutions and residential settings.
These forms of violence fall 'outside' the scope of the National Plan.
Likewise, the Disability Alliance submitted that the National Plan:
...has significant limitations in addressing and preventing
violence against women and girls with disability in institutional and
residential settings. It focuses on traditional notions of domestic/family
violence (ie: intimate partner/spousal violence) and sexual assault, and has
little emphasis on girls with disability. It fails to address the many forms of
violence perpetrated against women and girls with disability (such as sexual
and reproductive rights violations; restrictive practices; forced treatment;
seclusion and restraint; deprivation of liberty) and the many settings and
spaces in which violence against women and girls with disability occurs (such
as institutions, service settings, out-of-home care). These forms of violence
and settings currently fall 'outside' the scope of the National Plan.
Ms Carolyn Frohmader, representing Women with Disability on the
Disability Alliance, highlighted the problem of 'policy siloing':
The National Disability Strategy is not connected to the national
violence plan...we have a national framework to prevent violence against women,
which does not deal well with disability, does not include particular settings
and has a focus on intimate partner violence. We have a national child
protection framework that is actually about child protection. So we have this
policy siloing where, yes, we know these things but this one is not connected
to this one is not connected to this one. And it is just incredibly
Submitters suggested that the National Plan should be better integrated
with the National Disability Strategy and directly address violence against
women and girls in institutions. WWILD recommended that the second action plan
on the National Plan include specific focus on 'the violence perpetrated
against women and girls with disabilities, such as violence in institutions and
Evidence to the inquiry shows a need for the integration of domestic
violence programs with disability services to ensure people with disability
have access to the same supports.
The committee believes the National Plan should include specific actions
to address violence against women and girls in residential settings, including
ensuring access to mainstream services and specialist disability services.
Children and young people
The committee heard that children and young people experience particular
barriers and challenges in reporting to police and seeking access to justice.
The Human Rights Commission urged the committee to consider the interim
report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual
Abuse which noted that:
...children with disability are more vulnerable to sexual abuse
than children without disability, and that vulnerability to violence may be
increased when disability intersects with other attributes, for example,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with disability.
The interim report noted that children with disability are more likely
to have experienced repeated incidents of sexual abuse by the time they are 18
years of age. Vulnerability to abuse is compounded due to children with
disability being segregated to varying degrees from the mainstream community,
having special communication needs and receiving inadequate education about
sex, inappropriate touching and abuse.
Children with Disability Australia (CDA), a national representative
organisation for children with disability representing 5000 members,
highlighted that children with disability are three times more likely to be
abused than their peers, and those with communication difficulties and high
behaviour support needs have a heightened risk of abuse.
CDA submitted that children and their families experience particular barriers
when reporting violence and abuse:
It has been reported to CDA on numerous occasions that when
children, young people and families make complaints regarding abuse, service
providers and institutions become extremely defensive and adversarial. For
example, families have reported feeling attacked and ostracised by schools for
making complaints about their children’s experiences. In some instances,
schools have taken out intervention orders against parents, which appears to be
a way of avoiding accountability about issues of concern.
As with all people with disability, violence and abuse against children
and young people is often not identified as a crime, particularly when
perpetrated by care providers such as schools. CDA submitted that:
In these cases, abuse may be seen as an incident that can be addressed
within an organisation, rather than making appropriate referral to police. In
addition, police often do not recognise abuse experienced by children and young
people with disability as a crime. An example reported to CDA involved a four
year old being trapped under a chair by his Principal at school. The boy’s
mother went to the police after the school refused to recognise what had
occurred, however the police refused to take her statement.
The Disability Alliance provided a number of case studies of children
and young people with disability who experienced significant challenges in
reporting incidents of abuse to police (see Box 6.5).
Box 6.5: Case study – Children and young people with disability
Rose is eight, has limited mobility and limited verbal communication. She suffered a broken hip at
an after school hours care program…Rose eventually named the staff member who was
responsible for her injury, and she was interviewed by the police. However, her mother was not
allowed to act as her support person, as the police deemed that she would be able to interpret too
much of Rose’s unspoken communication, and this would be inadmissible as evidence. Instead, an
independent advocate accompanied Rose during the police interview.
The interview was a very stressful process for Rose. She spoke to the police through Assistive and
Alternative Communication. Rose was unable to disclose any details about the nature or origin of
her injury during the interview. The advocate suggested that a different form of questioning, such
as using more contextual questions concerning Rose’s injuries, be attempted, but the police
deemed that all communication strategies had been exhausted. The police stated that Rose, her
communication methods and her story were not reliable enough to take the investigation further.
They claimed that her interview would not be admissible in a court of law, and ceased
investigating the issue.
Source: Australian Cross Disability Alliance, Supplementary Submission 147, p. 12.
CDA highlighted that children and young people experience particular
barriers to access to justice, including:
...a lack of protection services for people with disability,
the failure of the justice system to provide support and adjustments to assist
people with disability participating in the system and discriminatory attitudes
that position people with disability as incapable of making reliable
In particular, CDA expressed concern that:
...police have been unwilling to take a statement from a child
either based on the assumptions of capacity regarding making a statement or
because there is no communication support available if required...The
perpetuation of the stereotype that people with disability make 'poor
witnesses' inhibits prosecution of crimes against children with disability. The
curtailed opportunity to demonstrate credibility as a witness in a court of law
further perpetuates this view.
In its submission, the Commissioner for Children and Young People
Western Australia (CCYPWA) highlighted the need to develop child-safe
principles for organisations to 'promote a culture where the safety, wellbeing and
participation of children and young people are reflected in policies and
day-to-day practices', and implement child-friendly complaints processes. The
CCYPWA noted that a child-friendly complaints process 'is a vital component of
a complaints system and should be carefully considered when designing the
broader system for handling complaints'.
The committee notes concerns that the National Framework for
Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (Child Protection Framework) does
not adequately address responding to violence against children and young people
with disability. The Department of Social Services submitted that the Child
Protection Framework 'is an ambitious, long-term approach to ensuring the
safety and wellbeing of Australia's children, and aims to deliver a substantial
and sustained reduction in levels of child abuse and neglect over time'.
The Disability Alliance argued that the Child Protection Framework:
...contains very limited reference to disability...Essentially,
this means that the only appearance that children with disability make in the
National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children is where their
disability is treated as a cause of the violence and abuse they experience: a
clear case of blaming the victim. Although the research priorities under the
Framework include disaggregating by disability, much of the research has
excluded those settings where children with disability are overrepresented and
where violence is endemic, including for example, out of home care run by
disability service providers, psychiatric facilities and hospitals.
Similarly, CDA submitted that the Child Protection Framework contains 'minimal
considerations of the specific vulnerabilities children with disability have to
experiencing abuse and neglect':
Often, the safety and wellbeing of children with disability
is positioned as being the responsibility of the disability sector, rather than
included and embedded in mainstream children's policy and services. As a
result, children with disability are often excluded from policy considerations
and the segregation of services remains unchallenged. By continually leaving
children with disability out of policy considerations and reform, there can be
minimal impact on day to day experiences of abuse.
The Disability Alliance and CDA recommended that the Child Protection
Framework include particular targets and measures to prevent the abuse of
children and young people with disability.
Families Australia recommended that the inquiry focus on the particular issues
faced by children and people with disability aged 0 to 25 years of age, and
that consideration be given to including a 'national priority aimed at
achieving better outcomes for children and young people with disability from
relevant national frameworks and strategies'.
The committee is disturbed by evidence to the inquiry which shows that
barriers to access to justice are particularly acute for children. The
committee considers that the Child Protection Frameworkmust be amended to
capture the specific needs of children with disability
The committee stresses that any reforms to the criminal justice system
(including legal support services and evidence legislation) and police training
must take into special consideration the needs of children and young people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people with disability
The committee was particularly concerned by evidence highlighting the
challenges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability face
in engaging with the criminal justice system.
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) submitted that
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability, particularly in
remote areas, do not have access to appropriate disability support services. NAAJA
argued that the lack of services amounts to 'systemic neglect' and contributes
to a high vulnerability to violence and abuse:
It is NAAJA's consistent experience that an absence of
supports for Aboriginal people with disability, such as access to mental health
services or supported accommodation for people with cognitive impairment, leads
to a range of serious problems. These include neglect, exploitation and
violence towards people with disability and it also means that people are
removed from their home community, losing the support of family and culture. It
also leads to increased contact with the criminal justice system - often
through their own violent conduct - and child protection system.
In particular, NAAJA highlighted that in the Northern Territory,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability are significantly
overrepresented in the criminal justice, child protection and adult
guardianship systems. NAAJA noted that the lack of support services available
to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system
contributes to high levels of incarceration:
NAAJA is often called upon to represent people with mental
illnesses and cognitive impairments who have committed serious violent acts
after a long history of escalating offending while their underlying
cognitive/intellectual/mental health issues have gone unaddressed. It is often
the case that the family and community of the person have found themselves
unable to cope with the support needs of the person.
Where people with cognitive impairment and mental illness
find themselves before the courts for criminal matters, the absence of supports
also often leads to their incarceration. This is because the person may be
considered to be a danger to community safety without support and/or
supervision in their community. This can see people remanded in custody and
then subject to custodial supervision under the NT Criminal Code. In the
absence of a forensic mental health facility in the NT, custodial supervision means
imprisonment in a maximum security prison.
Transition to community from prison is also made more
difficult by the lack of support services in the community. Once a person 'goes
in', they are likely to face significant challenges 'getting out' because
reducing the risk of their release requires options for supervision and support
that are simply not available to Aboriginal people in the NT, particularly in
The Disability Alliance provided case study examples of Aboriginal
people with disability who experienced incarceration due to the lack of
available support services (see Box 6.5).
Box 6.6: Case study – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability
Dave is a young Aboriginal man with intellectual disability. He was found 'unfit to plead' in a
criminal matter. He was indefinitely detained in a maximum security prison. Dave does not have
access to the intensive rehabilitation programs he needs to address the causes of his offending
He is often isolated in his cell for approximately 16 hours a day, and frequently shackled during
periods he is outside his cell. In response to repeated banging of his head causing bleeding, prison
officers strap him to a chair and inject him with tranquilizers until he is unconscious. This has
happened on numerous occasions.
The government corrections department responded to complaints by stating that it has a 'duty of
care' to prevent the man from hurting himself, and that the prison is not equipped to manage
people with cognitive impairment.
Source: Australian Cross Disability Alliance, Supplementary Submission 147, p. 4.
Citing a report by the Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign, the
Disability Alliance highlighted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples account for one third of the 150 people detained under mental
impairment legislation around Australia. Further, an estimated 50 Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people are currently detained indefinitely in
prisons and psychiatric units.
The issue of the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples with disability was highlighted by the UN Disability Committee which
specifically recommended that Australia:
Ends the unwarranted use of prisons for the management of
unconvicted persons with disabilities, focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander persons with disabilities, by establishing legislative, administrative
and support frameworks that comply with the Convention.
Mr Damian Griffis, representing First Peoples Disability Network
Australia on the Disability Alliance, told the committee that for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability, there are a lack of early
intervention supports available to prevent adverse interactions with the
criminal justice system:
The way we see it is on a spectrum of experience, if you
like. On one hand there is the soft discrimination of low expectations, and at
the other end we have the institutional racism. Experience sort of sits in
there somewhere. In a disability context, we talk about this syndrome we call
the 'bad black kid' syndrome. There is a kid in the back of the classroom
acting up. They might be very frustrating in the classroom. They get suspended
and expelled. And then they might end up hanging around the local shops. The
police start telling them to move on. They end up having interactions with the
juvenile justice system. And it turns out they have a disability of some kind.
This is a very common experience for us. They may have
hearing impairment or vision impairment; they may come from a home where they
do not sleep a lot, for example. We would frame that clearly as neglect on the
part of the education system, which is not properly recognising their needs. We
think that is a major issue for a lot of our young people. The lack of early
intervention and specialist supports around their disability is a very
significant consequence which can lead to a trajectory which we see quite
regularly of interactions with criminal justice and a journey which takes them
in a particular direction, when there is a very clear opportunity early on to
make an intervention and provide appropriate support.
Mr Griffis highlighted that in remote communities the police are the
only real service providers in town and not equipped to provide disability
If you live in regional or remote Australia—or even if you
live beyond the Blue Mountains here in New South Wales—your first interaction
is going to be with a police officer. If you have a mental health episode and
you are not going particularly well, you usually end up in the back of a paddy
wagon. In some parts of our country, as you know, the police are really the
service provider in town—and this is not necessarily to run down the police
force either, because that is not what they are supposed to be doing. Then you
see this trajectory of: go before a magistrate maybe, and the magistrate might
not be particularly attuned to your mental health needs, for example. Then you
are on this trajectory of indefinite detention.
Mr Griffis noted that the provision of appropriate services could
prevent the incarceration of unconvicted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples with disability:
...if you can start addressing disability more appropriately,
there is an opportunity here to reduce the Aboriginal prison population by 10
to 20 per cent in Australia.
The committee heard that another specific challenge is identifying
disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. NAAJA noted that:
There is no
comparable word in many Aboriginal languages to 'disability'. This adds a
significant barrier in identifying the numbers of Indigenous Australians with a
disability or combating any disadvantage suffered as a result of a disability.
To address this issue, the Law Council of Australia recommended:
...that all governments invest in methods to ensure the
detection and treatment of hearing impairment, FASD [Foetal Alcohol Spectrum
Disorder] and other disabilities which can potentially lead to adverse outcomes
in the criminal justice system, particularly for Indigenous Australians.
The committee is deeply concerned about the challenges Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability experience in engaging with the
criminal justice system, particularly the use of prisons as accommodation.
The committee recognises the need for specific services for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly in remote regions, to
divert people with disability from the criminal justice system to disability
specific support services.
The committee recognises the need for better identification of disability,
including hearing and vision impairment, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander communities to ensure people with disability are referred to the
The issue of the indefinite detention of people with disability was
raised as an issue with the committee, particularly when people with a mental
health or cognitive disability intersect with the criminal justice system. The Disability
Alliance outlined the process by which people with a mental health condition or
cognitive impairment who have been charged with an offence and found not fit to
stand trial or not guilty by reason of their disability, are then detained
indefinitely, sometimes within the prison environment itself:
All Australian jurisdictions have in place legislation that
addresses a defendant within the criminal justice system and their fitness to
stand trial. These justice diversion provisions are applied when people with
cognitive or psychosocial disability are deemed ‘unfit’ to stand trial. An
unfitness test may arise as an issue before or during the trial process. These justice diversion provisions have
resulted in people with disability being detained indefinitely in prisons or
psychiatric facilities without being convicted of a crime, and for periods that
may significantly exceed the maximum period of custodial sentence for the
The Human Rights Commission expressed concern with the negative
consequences this has for vulnerable people:
The Commission is also concerned that the practice of
indefinite incarceration in prison, if not considered to be a form of violence,
exposes people with disability to violence in an institutional setting. This
practice is particularly experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people with cognitive impairment and was reported on by the Social Justice
Commissioner in his 2012 Social Justice Report.
NAAJA provided evidence to the committee about the over-representation
of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory criminal justice system,
pointing out that many of those people had a long history of escalation of
behaviour while their underlying cognitive impairment or mental health issues
The Disability Alliance has also provided evidence that Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately affected by this form of
The UN Disability Committee has made comment on the practice of
indefinite detention after a finding of 'unfitness' and found in relation to
the Disability Convention that:
The Committee has established that declarations of unfitness
to stand trial or incapacity to be found criminally responsible in criminal
justice systems and the detention of persons based on those declarations, are
contrary to article 14 of the Convention since it deprives the person of his or
her right to due process and safeguards that are applicable to every defendant.
The indefinite detention of people with disability is an issue of
serious concern to the committee. This is made more serious by the sometimes
arbitrary nature of such detention without appropriate periodic review, and
where that detention occurs in a criminal justice facility.
The committee is of the view that if a person is detained in indefinite
detention, then there is an obligation on the part of the state to provide
therapeutic treatment in a facility not attached to the criminal justice
system. To do any less would result in the state imposing criminal justice
punishment on people as a direct result of them having a disability.
The committee notes that it is not clear whether recommendations made by
the UN Disability Committee on improving access to justice for people with
disability have been implemented across jurisdictions. The evidence we have
received would suggest they haven't or if they have they are inadequate to
This would indicate that Australia is not fulfilling its international
human rights obligations in relation to providing access to justice.
The committee is deeply concerned by the evidence presented to this
inquiry which shows that people with disability who are victims of crime, face
significant barriers to having those crimes appropriately reported,
investigated and prosecuted.
The committee is further concerned that problems with access to justice
for people with disability is not an unknown issue to the Australian
Government. Multiple reports have highlighted the critical need for reform to
Australia's legal systems. These reports, discussed earlier in this chapter,
include the 2012 Civil Society report to the UN Disability Committee, the 2013 UN
Disability Committee observations on Australia's implementation of the
Disability Convention, the 2014 Human Rights Commission report and the 2014 Law
Reform Commission report.
Of particular concern to the committee, is the apparent lack of impetus
to implement the recommendations of those expert reports on access to justice,
which range from core legislative reform through to improved training for
police and judicial officers and diversionary programs for people with
Given the wide terms of reference for this inquiry, the committee was
unable to investigate all aspects of the multi-faceted issue of barriers to
access to justice for people with disability. However, the evidence gathered by
this inquiry clearly shows that this is a widespread problem. More clearly
understanding the specific barriers in each jurisdiction is a fundamental step
to reducing the prevalence of violence, abuse and neglect of people with
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