Monday, 15 April 2013
Communication facilitators should be a legal right
With Jai Phillips’ help, Antony Hedger achieved a restraining order against a man who had abused him
In December 2011, an Adelaide bus driver who was accused of abusing seven intellectually-disabled children walked free without a trial because prosecutors were concerned the victims could not adequately communicate what happened to them.
The SA DPP laid charges twice against the driver but both times they were dropped with prosecutors telling the children’s parents they wouldn’t be able to cope with cross-examination. The parents were also told communication facilitators or speech therapists wouldn’t be allowed in the court.
For the families, the outcome was crushing.
“I was devastated thinking this man walks free and our children almost feel like the guilty ones in all this,” says one mother known as “Cathy”.
Kelly Vincent made history in 2010 by being elected to the SA Upper House for the Dignity for Disability Party, and says this case highlights urgent reforms that are needed to South Australia’s justice system.
“One of these children in particular was able to indicate to a teacher and to his parents quite clearly that something had gone wrong, and yet that seems to stand for nothing in the court process.”
People with an intellectual or physically disability are between 4 and 7 times more likely than non-disabled people, to be sexually or physically abused. But because our justice system often requires witness to be cross-examined, this can mean that some of our most vulnerable people are left without any access to the courts.
“Right around Australia it’s extremely challenging for people with little or no speech to access justice,” says Jai Phillips from Communication Rights Australia. “The Police, the Justice system often will turn around and say ‘that’s a little bit challenging I don’t know what to do’.”
Communication Rights Australia is funded by the Vic Government and is Australia’s only organisation that supports people who have little to no speech. They are funded for only one advocate, and their services are only accessible for Victorians.
There are calls for similar disability communication organisations to be set up around Australia