Deaf People (Access to Justice)

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 2nd March 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak 10:13 pm, 2nd March 1999

I remind the House that I am a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People—an unremunerated post—although tonight I speak in a personal capacity. It is unusual to have debates on issues relating to deaf people two nights running in the House, but I am sure that 8.5 million people in this country with hearing impairments welcome those debates.

In sign language the signs for politics and justice are very similar. That is not surprising, because if politics is about anything it is about securing a fair and just society. That means, among other things, a society in which all have equal access to justice. Our legal system reflects society in many ways. In one respect it reflects society well: in society and in the legal system there is a lack of understanding of the communication needs of people with hearing impairments. That leads to inconvenience, frustration and, ultimately, injustice.

How many people use hearing aids? The answer is about 2 million, with a further 2 million who would benefit from one. How many magistrates use hearing aids? I do not know, but their age profile would suggest that the proportion using hearing aids is higher than that of the general population. How many magistrates courts have induction loops designed to enhance the use of hearing aids? No central figures are kept, but I suspect that the answer is very few. I understand that no courtrooms in Derbyshire have loop systems to help people with hearing aids. It is not compulsory to fit induction loops in courts, although magistrates, defendants, witnesses, court staff, lawyers and the public would all benefit, and justice would be heard to be done.

How many courts include induction loops in their assessment of the accessibility of courtrooms? Those questions illustrate the lack of facilities for people with hearing impairments and a lack of checks on the accessibility of legal buildings, and they expose the Court Service's lack of awareness of the needs of more than 8 million people: one in seven of the people in Britain today.

In September 1998, the Court Service told the RNID that at least one courtroom in every new court building would henceforth be fitted with a loop system but that there was no facility for fitting them anywhere else retrospectively. That is simply not good enough. Are new courtrooms, let alone old ones, designed and lit to facilitate lip reading? Are court staff trained in deaf awareness? My guess is no, but those are reasonable, low-cost adjustments that I would expect the service to make in future.

"Reasonable adjustment" is the phrase used in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and purveyors of goods and services, which includes the Court Service, are obliged to implement it from later this year. Not only the Court Service is at fault. The police and the Prison Service, with some honourable exceptions, are equally guilty and, as far as I know, so is the probation service.

One in every 1,000 people in this country is profoundly deaf, with no useful hearing at all. Judge Stephen Tumim, the former chief inspector of prisons and the father of a deaf child, has said: Magistrates nowadays tend to send more Deaf people to prison on the basis that probation officers cannot deal with them adequately and I think the prisons make entirely inadequate arrangements. Let us consider how the tendency to send more deaf people to prison than chance would dictate might come about. Two men have an argument outside a pub, late at night. Neither is terribly drunk. One—let us call him A—is profoundly deaf and uses sign language. The other is hearing. They have an altercation and the police arrive. One of the men is coherent and relatively restrained. One is gesticulating and making incoherent noises. Which of the men is the bigger threat to law and order? Which is the more guilty? Which is more likely to be handcuffed?

In this example, in an instant judgment, the police officer decides that A, with his grunting and his waving arms, is most in need of restraint, and he slaps the handcuffs on; but handcuffs gag a deaf person, whose first or only language is sign language. A becomes more angry and frustrated and further consequences inevitably follow. This story is imaginary, but not exceptional, in a country where deaf people are refused entry to pubs, forced to leave clubs and evicted from holiday camps. Instances of all three have been reported in the past couple of years.

Because they communicate in sign, and sometimes make loud and unusual noises which are judged by some people to be offensive to other guests, deaf people have been treated extremely unfairly. Under those circumstances, is it surprising if deaf people's frustration can occasionally boil over into anger and perhaps even violence?

Mr. A is taken along to the police station, unable to express himself as his hands are fixed behind him. Fortunately, the desk sergeant immediately recognises that A is deaf and the police constable who brought him in laughs in embarrassment and makes light of his mistake. The deaf man thinks that the policeman is laughing at him, which does not help his confidence in the system. Mr. A does not understand what is happening because, being deaf from birth—and like most people who are deaf from birth—his lip-reading skills are minimal. Mr. A is searched, and two telephone numbers are found in his pocket. Recognising the need for communication support, the desk sergeant tries to call the numbers to try to find a friend for the deaf person.

The first call produces an odd electronic noise when the phone is answered, which the sergeant does not recognise. He thinks that there is something wrong with the line. In fact, it is a text telephone. Some police stations have text telephones, or minicoms—many do not. In this case, the policeman does not recognise it. The second number gets an answer. It is A's 17-year-old sister, who is hearing. She is very distressed to hear what is going on, and she comes to the police station immediately.

The sergeant rings the contact number in his book for a freelance sign language interpreter but, by now, it is midnight on a Saturday, and the interpreter—who is not expecting the call—is either out or not answering the phone in the middle of the night. Do all police stations know when and how to contact a sign language interpreter? It is unlikely. There are fewer than 150 people with recognised sign language interpreting skills in Britain, and 50,000 people for whom it is their first or only functional language. They need that support.

The sister arrives at the police station. Fortunately, she can sign. Ten minutes later, she is interpreting for her brother, as best she can. However, she is not a qualified interpreter—very far from it. She is young, and unfamiliar with police terminology. She makes a lot of mistakes in her interpretation which, unwittingly, compromise her brother's position.

At the end of the interview, the police constable switches off the audio tape recording. He has a record of the interview which can be referred to later by both sides, as the law says he must—or has he? No, he has not. He has no record of what the accused person said in the interview; only a record of a second-rate interpretation, and no guarantee that the arrested person had even understood the questions being asked.

Why does our legal system not insist on having a professionally qualified interpreter used at this stage? Why is there no obligation to record on video interviews involving sign language, so that the accused's words are at least on record? Are the few sign language interpreters who do exist given proper training for working in legal situations? Is the Lord Chancellor on course to fulfil his pledge in 1998 that, as from 2001, all types of interpreters in court and police interviews should be qualified and registered?

If A was a foreigner, there would be less of a problem—the interpreter's words could always be checked against the audio recording of the original. The Home Office's view—reiterated a couple of weeks ago in another place—is that video-recording sign language interpreting of defendants and witnesses is not essential, and a matter for local discretion. That is quite inconsistent with the Lord Chancellor's ambition.

When Lord Williams of Mostyn said that sign language was just "an expression of English", he was showing a complete misunderstanding of the linguistic and cultural needs of deaf people. He dismissed the concerns expressed by noble Lords far too lightly. His statement was like saying that John Constable's "Hay Wain" and Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist" were both written in the same language.

The absence of video evidence was discussed in an excellent publication called "Police and Deaf People: A Lack of Communication?", written last year by a police officer and published under the police research awards scheme. I commend it to my hon. Friend the Minister. The paper revealed that no fewer than 71 per cent. of police officers thought that it should be obligatory to record on video interviews involving sign language. Last December, that was also the conclusion of a conference of deaf and hearing professionals in London on "Equality Before the Law: Deaf People's Access to Justice", organised by the University of Durham.

Let us go back to the courts. We have seen that people who use lip-reading or hearing aids do not have their major communication needs met in court, but what about sign language users like A? In 1995, a trial collapsed because the interpreting arrangements fell down.

Do deaf people get British sign language support in court when they need it? Yes, they do. Since April last year, the Lord Chancellor has paid for interpreters for sign language where they are required for deaf defendants in court. In the first nine months of that scheme, the Lord Chancellor has paid for sign language interpreters in no fewer than 71 cases—not an insignificant number.

Are those sign language interpreters treated according to their professional code, with guarantees of preparation time, breaks during the day, and the possibility of working in teams where necessary? That is a genuine question. I do not know the answer; I expect that it is mixed. Are deaf defendants and their interpreters videotaped in court so that mistakes can be checked back to source? No.

What if A had not been a defendant, but a member of the jury. Let us consider an example. We shall call him James. James used to be a highly successful business man. He is now the chief executive of a major charity with an annual turnover of several million pounds. He is a senior member of a Government task force and has spoken at conferences at 10 Downing street and elsewhere.

James is barred from jury service. He is not fictitious. Why is he barred? Although he lip-reads well from close by, he needs the services of a note-taker or a Palantype keyboard operator. He has been profoundly deaf from birth but, unlike 50,000 others like him, he does not use sign language. He is barred from jury service because in the 1960s, I think, a judge refused to allow a 13th person in the jury room to give communication support to a deaf juror.

To their great credit, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), then an Opposition spokesman on home affairs, attempted to add a short clause to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. It read: The Secretary of State shall … set out the procedure by which all persons who are summoned to appear or take part in court proceedings, or taken into police custody, and for whom there is a requirement for either a qualified Sign Language interpreter, other forms of communication support or a technical assistive device may thus be provided with such assistance. Needless to say, the amendment was not included in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Speaking at the Inner Temple on 13 February to a disability law conference, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor acknowledged that deficiency in the system, and committed the Government to bringing the legal system into accordance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend, when replying to the debate, would confirm that when the Lord Chancellor acknowledged the widespread concern that interpreters and carers were indeed being unreasonably excluded from the jury room, he included lip speakers, note takers and Palantype keyboard operators as well.

In that speech, the Lord Chancellor also said: No degree of disability … should restrict any citizen to second class justice. Finally, I shall deal with prison. There are more deaf people in prison than chance would dictate. I suspect that Judge Tumim was right in his observation. I am equally sure that there is no natural link between deafness and criminality. However, there is a link between the blindness of the system to the needs of deaf people and the years that some deaf people spend behind bars.

We isolate people in prison as a punishment. Deafness in prison is like solitary confinement. Some deaf prisoners do not understand how they got there or fully why, because no one ever explained to them in their own language. Nevertheless, I take the opportunity to praise the work that is being done with deaf prisoners at Brixton prison. Deaf awareness is becoming a reality in the prison service as that pilot project seeks to expand, yet the prison officers involved would be the first to admit that they are only scratching the surface.

I believe that the Lord Chancellor's speech of two weeks ago could be the start of a new era in deaf people's access to justice. It is a start, although it is from a very low base. I am aware that the issues that I have raised do not fall easily into the responsibility of a single Government Department: the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor both have roles to play. In the name of joined-up government, I ask my hon. Friend to give a comprehensive and positive response to the points that I have raised, and to help to secure access to justice for all deaf people.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:29 pm, 2nd March 1999

It is good that the House has debated issues of concern to deaf people on two consecutive evenings. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) on securing the Adjournment debate and on speaking on an issue on which he feels very strongly and to which he has previously drawn the attention of hon. Members and my ministerial colleagues. He has again demonstrated his great knowledge of the subject.

My hon. Friend is uniquely well qualified to raise these issues, being a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and having himself learned to use British sign language. For many years, he has concerned himself with access issues for people with sensory impairment. The issues are wide ranging, but none is more important than access to justice.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are anxious to do all that we can to see that deaf people are treated fairly by the criminal justice system, whether they are involved in it as suspects, victims or witnesses. My hon. Friend raised many issues. If I am unable to respond to all of them, I shall undertake to liaise with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that they are covered in some other way.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the communication needs of deaf people. British sign language is used by many of those people, although, as my hon. Friend showed, it is by no means used by them all. As it has a spatial element, it is not an easy language to interpret, and interpreting legal concepts using British sign language is all the more challenging, as my hon. Friend showed in his examples.

The point has been well made that police interviews with deaf suspects who are British sign language users should be recorded on videotape. That suggestion was made in a report, "Police and Deaf People: A Lack of Communication?", which was written by an officer in the Lancashire constabulary and published in September 1997 under the Home Office police research award scheme. The reason for the suggestion is that the present requirement to make a contemporaneous written note of an interview so that a deaf suspect can take it away is not equivalent to providing a complete record of the interview. It is argued, with some reason, that communication using British sign language can be fully and accurately recorded only on videotape.

As with all reports published under PRAS, the report was sent to chief officers of police with a statement that the views in the report are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Home Office. All PRAS reports leave discretion for individual chief officers to decide whether to implement their recommendations. My hon. Friend made it clear—I know that he is not entirely happy about this point—that it is open to chief officers to implement the report's recommendation to record interviews with deaf suspects on videotape, provided that the necessary equipment is available and provided that the deaf suspect consents.

It may seem surprising that any deaf suspect would object to an interview being recorded on video. However, some suspects prefer their appearance and body language not to be included in the recording of an interview. As it is not a statutory requirement for the interview to be video recorded—unlike the position with audiotape recording—suspects can object, and it is necessary for the police to have their consent if they are to proceed.

As I have explained, to make it a requirement for the police to video record interviews with deaf suspects would require a change in legislation, which would have considerable cost implications for the police. Video-recording equipment, with additional cameras to capture all those present, would have to be installed in all police stations where interviews with suspects take place in case a deaf suspect using British sign language might need to be interviewed. The equipment would have to be on hand because time limits apply to police detention.

Precise figures on the number of deaf suspects whom the police need to interview are not readily available, but they are believed to be a very small proportion of the total number of suspects. The responsibility for provision of equipment is a matter for individual chief officers, who have to determine their spending priorities. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Home Office is trying to raise awareness of the issues surrounding communication between the police and deaf people, and to encourage the making of suitable local arrangements. It may not be possible to install video-recording equipment in every police station, but, for example, it would be sensible to ensure that the equipment is available in an area where a community of deaf people lives.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

At one time, it was not compulsory to audiotape interviews. At that time, were people given the option to choose to be recorded? It seems to me that deaf people should at least have the opportunity to have a video recording made of an interview; one camera would be sufficient for the purpose, as one microphone is sufficient for an audiotape.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a point that I was trying to make, albeit in a slightly different way. My hon. Friend must appreciate that not every person would want a video recording to be made, but we shall further consider the point.

As I have mentioned, the research report on the police and deaf people has been sent to the chief officers of all the police forces in the United Kingdom, as has another research report on disability awareness produced by a police officer from Strathclyde police. All police forces have been invited to attend seminars on the findings of those two research papers. The seminars are aimed at senior police management and are designed to raise awareness of the issues covered in the reports. The authors of both reports will act as facilitators at the seminars, which are to be held in five centres—Perth, York, Rugby, Bristol, and London—between 22 and 31 March this year.

I should also mention the Home Office report "Speaking up for Justice" on vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, which included a number of recommendations that may improve the treatment of deaf witnesses, especially those who are particularly vulnerable because of some other factor or disability. The implementation of the report's recommendations will include the development of information for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, and address issues such as accreditation for those who act as communicators or intermediaries for vulnerable witnesses.

The House will be pleased to learn that the interpreting needs of deaf people who are involved with the criminal justice system are also being considered by a sub-group of the trial issues group, which is an inter-agency group— joined-up government—working to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system as a whole. That group set up an interpreters working group to facilitate implementation of the national agreement and to promote its principles. The group works closely with representatives of interpreters associations and, in particular, with the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, to ensure that the needs of the deaf or hard of hearing in the criminal justice system, whether as defendants, victims or witnesses, are properly addressed.

I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the Government are conscious of the needs of deaf people within the criminal justice system. It is partly thanks to his efforts that we have been made aware of the problems. The Government are taking what we believe to be pragmatic but effective steps to ensure that deaf people are treated fairly within the criminal justice system, and today's debate is one more step along that road.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.