Justice for victims of disability hate crime

Terry McCorry

Our Disability Hate Crime Advocate, Terry McCorry shares his advice of what to do if you're experiencing disability hate crime.

We can only help victims feel protected and empowered to take their experiences to the authorities. No one should have to feel unsafe in their home or community.

Disability hate crime advocate in Northern Ireland

The Department of Justice in Northern Ireland (NI) decided victims of hate crime needed something more than an officer turning up and dealing with it. My role is funded by the police and justice department of NI.

After working in this role for over two years, I am not surprised by the results of this year’s Freedom Of Information (FOI) request.

I’ve read that it's a result of increased reporting and that any rises are misleading - I don't see it this way. It is hard to tell what is causing the spike, but there is a clear spike. I see it every day.

But across the UK, if there are increased incidents of disability hate crime because the public realises they can report it, then that’s good news. A lot of the disabled community still don’t realise it’s an offence, there are laws against it and the police can do something about it.

The natural consequence of the work we’re doing is raising awareness of the problem, and increased reporting is evidence that awareness is increasing.

An increase in intolerance during lockdown

Particularly in the last three months of lockdown, there seems to have been an increase in intolerance in society. There has been a genuine spike in people’s hostility towards anyone who does not fit their perception of ‘normal’.

There is a real prejudice towards people who have a personal characteristic different from the perpetrators. I see it in NI through my online engagement, and people are highlighting the abuse they’re getting.

But I would also say that people are still saying ‘It’s not worth it, nothing ever happens’. There remains a reluctance to come forward in terms of reporting it to the police and complaining to social media platforms.

Social media platforms need to do more to combat abuse

Social media platforms are still not doing enough. They don’t feedback and give victims enough options. They are not accessible enough, and that causes apathy. I know so many people who feel they are just setting themselves up for a disappointment.

Twitter gives feedback if they think it was an offensive post, but they don’t remind the user what the post was. One day I reported three or four different things that were quite horrific and got feedback on a couple, but I didn’t know which ones they were referring to! But the authorities are starting to take notice.

The Law Commission's consultation process on hate crime

The fact that the Law Commission is now starting a consultation process is hugely encouraging. They look after hate crime for England and Wales but interestingly online hate crime for the whole of the UK. They design future law for England and Wales and bring forward a set of recommendations to enable the government to decide what becomes legislation.

It is a slow process - we could be talking years – but we have a rare opportunity to contribute to the establishment of law. I know from experience in NI that these consultations are very valuable to previous judges that organised the process so I would encourage people to get involved.

The Law Commission in Germany can fine social media companies up to €5m for not taking offensive material down. If you combine that with the establishment of advocacy services like ours in Belfast, these are just two positive developments that could help combat disability hate crime in the future.

Lack of hate crime prosecutions

If somebody gets arrested for an offence, the police have several options. They can report it to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and a decision gets made as to whether it reaches court. They can charge the perpetrator(s) which means they have a court date, but all charges have to be reviewed by the CPS or Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in NI. So, it always goes before the CPS one way or another. A barrister will then look at it to decide whether to take it forward.

But an actual criminal conviction always has to be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, and that’s a high threshold to meet. Typically, independent evidence is looked at above and beyond one person saying somebody did something. That could be independent witnesses or CCTV. However, because a lot of disability hate crimes happen around people’s homes, CCTV is not always kit they can afford, and it becomes a vicious circle.

Witnesses and evidence of hate crime

Social media is failing to be a sufficient witness. Anyone can set up a social media account, and IP addresses can float. It’s becoming harder to track people down, especially as police have stretched resources.

With prosecutions, if the CPS decide we are going to proceed to court, that’s when it goes to prosecution, but the result can be guilty or not guilty. So, to get a successful prosecution is tough. I believe the police need to support disabled people with the means of gathering evidence to bring prosecutions.

These people are being tortured daily, but rather than saying ‘we don’t have evidence’, we should be saying ‘how can we help you get the evidence?’. I don’t know what the solution is because we can’t go round installing CCTV in everyone’s homes. Still, there has to be consideration given when there’s a certain threshold within which police can help gather evidence.

How can we better support victims?

Victims are often let down. One of the first things I advise is for people to keep a journal of the incidents as an accurate record of everything that’s happened. Report everything, no matter how small. It helps the police build a picture. You then build that picture, and if a witness sees something, you have a body of evidence to support it.

Police rely heavily on harassment legislation; a pattern of behaviour, name-calling etc. The same person doing it forms a pattern of behaviour. Name-calling is not a criminal offence but doing it lots of times becomes harassment and a criminal offence. But it is still about finding independent evidence. Some of my clients have spent money on CCTV, and in every case, they have captured evidence – it gets proof to the court.

Police need to look at how they use the regulation of investigatory powers and how they use equipment to support the gathering of evidence. I can understand reluctance due to cost, but evidence gathering is vital.

Meanwhile, we can only help victims feel protected and empowered to take their experiences to the authorities. No one should have to feel unsafe in their home or community.

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