Posted Monday 20 September 2010
An appalling case reported on Friday, where police officers in Essex failed to investigate sexual assaults because the victim was not believed due to her history of mental distress, highlights just how far we still have to go before victims and witnesses with mental health problems have equal access to justice.
The case involved a 56 year old woman who made two allegations of assault to the police in 2007. The investigating officers came to her house, but did not take the reported crime seriously as she had experience of mental health problems. After the victim’s family intervened, the perpetrator of the crime was arrested and tried, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years' imprisonment.
In a report published on Friday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) criticised the actions of Essex Police, stating that
Police wrongly focused on the existence of a mental health condition, yet for instance failed to make arrangements for possible DNA evidence to be secured at the scene, despite the woman offering such evidence to the officers. The lack of help and support on two separate, traumatic occasions... stemmed from very poor policing and totally inadequate supervision.
To me, this demonstrates exactly why, during Mind’s research in 2007, another victim of crime with experience of mental distress described the criminal justice system as ‘another assault’. After the initial trauma of the crime itself, too often people are disbelieved and even discriminated against by the professionals they turn to for help, causing further distress and a feeling of being without the protection of the law.
Since Mind’s campaign for equal access to justice was launched three years ago, national police bodies have recognised the extent of the problem, with new training and guidance on mental health launched this year. Good practice has also sprung up at a local level, for example where local Minds are working in partnership with police forces to improve access to justice.
Yet the IPCC’s report into the case in Essex shows there is a very long way to go before the criminal justice system is no longer ‘another assault’ for victims and witnesses with mental distress. Still more concerning, proposed reforms to policing and the impact of public spending cuts on the police force may undermine the progress we have made to date, as Mind has recently argued.
Given the extent of hate crime still faced by people with mental health problems, as our recent response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows, we will keep campaigning to ensure the Coalition Government and police partners do not deprioritise action to tackle mental health discrimination at the heart of the criminal justice system, once and for all.
Amy Whitelock, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer
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