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Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living

Why is our justice system failing vulnerable people?

Date: 11/9/2015
Summary: Many people with mental health problems and learning disabilities find contact with the police and courts ‘shocking and overwhelming’ – yet funding for support they need is under threat

“At one point I practically lived in police stations,” says Melissa Cunningham, whose youngest child, Pete, began stealing electronic equipment at 18 and was repeatedly arrested. “We kept saying [to justice professionals] that he’s got problems and that he doesn’t understand what they are saying. He was vulnerable.”

It wasn’t until Pete, who has a learning disability and a personality disorder, was in his 20s that “a judge realised something was wrong”, says Cunningham, and he was diverted to the treatment he needed.

Her experiences are echoed by other relatives of people with mental health or learning difficulties who come into contact with the police, courts and prisons. They are interviewed in a study by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group. Relative Justice outlines how family members like Cunningham try, sometimes for years, to get effective treatment for their relatives.

Among the issues raised by families is a lack of basic information to help them navigate the process in police stations or the courts. Another concern is that police and justice professionals did not always have the necessary skills, training or resources to adequately support vulnerable people, some of whom have difficulty communicating. Many reported that the experience of the system could be shocking, stressful and overwhelming.

“Too often, vulnerable people with mental health needs or a learning disability get in trouble with the law and find themselves faced with trying to understand and navigate our arcane criminal justice system,” says Juliet Lyon, the PRT’s director.

This is despite the launch in 2013 of a “liaison and diversion” service aimed at identifying and supporting vulnerable adults and children throughout the justice system, which includes referring them to appropriate services. Liaison and diversion services cover just over half of England, and the government is committed to rolling them out across the country. However, there are fears that renewed pressure on departmental budgets (liaison and diversion funding sits with the Department of Health) means that can’t be taken for granted.

The government’s spending review, due in the autumn, is scheduled to assess whether the service will get all the funding required. With more than a fifth of people in prison estimated to have some form of learning disability, according to the PRT, and a significant proportion of the population (26% of women and 16% of men) saying they had been treated for a mental health condition in the year before being sentenced, supporting vulnerable people in the system and their families must be a priority, says Lyon.

Cunningham believes better mental health training for police officers and other professionals would help greatly, alongside families being consulted to make sure issues were identified at the earliest possible time.

The PRT study follows a report last month by the National Appropriate Adult Network (Naan), which found that police in many parts of the country were failing to identify vulnerable people or to ensure that an “appropriate adult” was present when they were detained or questioned.

Despite government moves to stop people being held in prison cells as “a place of safety”, the Naan report There to Help, commissioned by the home secretary, found that in some areas thousands of vulnerable people were being held in cells for hours at a time. Using police data, the charity estimated that appropriate adults, many of whom are family members, were present only in around 45,000 of the total 1.4m detentions.

Liaison and diversion services were introduced after being recommended by the landmark 2009 Bradley review into the treatment of vulnerable children and adults in the justice system. The Relative Justice research found that where there was access to these services, families reported that relatives tended to be dealt with more sensitively and the role of family members was taken more seriously.

“Liaison and diversion services can, and should, enlist the help of family members,” Lyon concludes.

Jenny Talbot, the report’s author, says some progress has been made. She points to the advocacy work of the Care Not Custody coalition, of which she is director, an alliance between the Women’s Institute and PRT to reform the way vulnerable people are treated. It counts more than 2 million justice and health professionals among its members.

Nevertheless, many families feel they are at the mercy of the system. Margaret Black is another mother of a young man with mental health problems who struggled to get her son’s condition acknowledged by justice professionals. She says in the study that it’s a “no brainer” to make sure families are consulted and that liaison and diversion is available as early as possible to prevent people becoming entangled in the system in the longer term. “In the long run, [the government] will save thousands and thousands of pounds if they have these services,” she says.

A Department of Health spokeswoman says involvement of families and service users is important to the programme. “The intention is that the model is rolled out nationwide in 2016/17, subject to HM Treasury approval of the full business case,” she adds.

Some names have been changed

Source The Guardian

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