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Human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday

By Graeme Innes - posted Monday, 10 February 2014

Maria has cerebral palsy and little speech. She wanted to tell police about a sexual assault, but there was no communication support worker to help with the statement. The police relied on Maria's parents to provide communication support. Maria was uncomfortable giving personal details of the assault to police in front of her parents, so her evidence was incomplete. This caused problems for the investigation, and during the court process.

Another couple told me: "Our daughter loves pretty calendars and greeting cards."In her thirties, she has an intellectual disability. She lives independently. During a four year period she was convicted of shoplifting such cards seven times, and was at risk of going to gaol. She was only convicted because the 'unfit to plead' laws in Queensland do not apply to summary offenses."

Henry has an acquired brain injury. He wanted to apply for support from Legal Aid to appeal his conviction, and needed help to fill in forms. He found the language complex and difficult to understand. He did not receive assistance in prison to fill out the forms and filled them out incorrectly. This delayed his application. By the time he filled out the forms correctly, his application was outside the time limit.


Australians with disabilities, particularly those with communication challenges or complex support needs, do not receive equal treatment in our criminal justice system. This is true whether they are victims, witnesses or alleged offenders. This results in negative outcomes including increased chance of being victims of violence, difficult experiences with police, lack of time and understanding in the court system, higher rates of incarceration, and higher likelihood of longer time in gaol and re-offending.

This is a problem for all of us. Not only is more damage done to people with disabilities who have negative experiences in the justice system. But because such people spend longer time there, and are not dealt with appropriately, it increases the cost to the whole community.

Why do these problems occur? The Australian Human Rights Commission has investigated these concerns during the past year. We consulted Australia-wide- in capital cities and regional areas. We spoke with people with disabilities, their families and advocates, practitioners from police, the courts and corrections systems, and Attorney's-General.

The answers are complex. They include negative and limiting assumptions being made about people with disabilities, lack of understanding of people's capacity, lack of appropriate staff training and resources, lack of time to address more complex issues, and some problems in laws and the way they are applied.

But the problems cannot continue. 90 % of Australian women with intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse. There are currently at least 20-30 people in our prison systems who have not been convicted of an offense- they have been found unfit to plead, and gaols are the only accommodation option. From 1989 to 2011 105 people were shot by police, and 42% had a mental illness. For every dollar spent on diversion from the criminal justice system between $1.40 and $2.40 in government costs is saved- big money when the Australian community spends $11.7 billion on the criminal justice system

We have not found the "silver bullet". Our report lists programmes and services currently in place which provide better access to the criminal justice system for people with disabilities. And it proposes the development of Disability Justice Strategies in each State or Territory. These strategies, along with the resourcing they will require, must be developed in partnership with people with disabilities, provide for better co-ordination of services, and recognise the impact of disability within the justice system.


If someone is a victim of a crime, Australians would expect the system to respond. If someone seeks to give evidence in court, Australians would expect that to be facilitated. And if someone is accused of a crime, Australians would expect them to receive fair and equal treatment. Our criminal justice system is not meeting these expectations for people with disabilities. That must change!

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About the Author

Graeme Innes AM is the federal Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Graeme Innes

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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