Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Hate crime laws facing scrutiny

The Law Commission is to look at whether there is a case for reforming the law regarding hate crimes

Hate crime laws are to be scrutinised in a bid to create a more even playing field for victims, the Law Commission has said.

A crime is recorded as a hate crime if the victim believes it to have been motivated by hostility or prejudice towards disability, gender identity, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Under the Crime and Disorder Act, some crimes such as assault or criminal damage are prosecuted as "aggravated" offences if motivated by racial or religious hatred - but this is not the case for disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

In addition, the Public Order Act covers those who publish material that is intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation - but not disability or gender identity.

A new consultation by the Law Commission, the body that recommends law reforms, is to look at whether there is a case for reforming the law to reflect in legislation the view of hate crime held by the criminal justice agencies.

Professor David Ormerod QC, the Law Commissioner leading on the project, said: "Reforming the law would bring consistency. It would extend the protection of hate crime legislation and bring recognition to all victims who are targeted because of their disability, gender identity, race, religion or sexual orientation. But it may be that the existing legislation and the power of the court to enhance sentencing for these offences already provides victims with adequate remedies, and the price we might pay for reform could outweigh the benefits."

The consultation will seek views on whether any new offences would already be covered adequately by existing criminal offences and if the existing power of the courts to enhance sentencing in such cases already provides sufficient remedy.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society (NAS), said: "The Law Commission's consultation provides a vital opportunity to ensure disability hate crimes are punished with the same severity as other hate crimes. People with autism have the same rights as any other member of society to lead lives free from fear and violence, but all too often we hear deeply troubling incidents of disability hate crime.

"54% of respondents to a recent NAS hate crime survey said the police did not record there experience as a hate crime. Alarmingly, almost two thirds of them said they had experienced hate crime more than 10 times. It's sickening that people with autism become targets of crime because of their disability, but unfortunately the social difficulties those with the condition experience can leave them vulnerable to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals.

"It's essential that sentencing guidelines for disability hate crime are reassessed in line with other hate crimes, so that a clear message is sent to perpetrators that this behaviour is not acceptable in 21st century Britain."