When Work-Programme provider[*], Triage, got Anna arrested for threatening behaviour and assault last October, no-one bothered to find out that she had actually been undergoing an epileptic seizure. She doesn’t dispute that she banged her fists and grabbed at one of the Triage workers, but she had no control over her actions. The trigger for the seizure was frustration at Triage’s insistence on only notifying her of future meetings by post. She was concerned that she wouldn’t get the information in time and would end up getting her benefit sanctioned – and as we know from numerous examples, that fear was well founded. In fact, Anna herself had previously been sent a letter from Triage without a stamp and had had to go to the post office and pay to receive it. The jobcentre was aware that Anna was epileptic as epilepsy can affect what jobs someone is able to do, so that information should have been passed on to Triage. I’m no lawyer, but could Triage’s failure to take account of Anna’s situation be considered as discrimination under the Equality Act?
So began a fourteen month saga that raises serious issues about our criminal justice system. We start with a question about the police, and whether they get any training in recognising and coping with epilepsy. We have observed before that many court cases could be avoided if the police were encouraged to use their discretion and defuse tense situations, instead of simply acting as security guards for those in authority. If they had been able to recognise that Anna had been having a seizure, then they could have known that arresting her would serve no purpose other than to feed the slow-moving machinery of the court, at considerable cost to both Anna’s mental health and the public purse.
When we met Anna she had already been allocated a lawyer by the court and gone through the initial Pleading Diet, where she had pleaded ‘not guilty’. She has since described her fear at that first appearance in court, when she was surrounded by strange faces all focussing on her as she was questioned and processed through an unfamiliar system. Anna told us what had happened with Triage, but didn’t have a copy of the charge sheet as she had thrown it out in frustration. We tried to meet the lawyer before the next stage – the Interim Diet on 9th March – but his office is in Cupar. Since the Cupar court closed, Cupar lawyers come under the Dundee court, which means that not only do Fifers have to travel to Dundee for trial, but Dundonians can also have difficulties reaching their legal advice. Because of this, we only managed to see the lawyer for a few minutes, just before Anna had to appear in court, but I was at least able to send him a copy of Anna’s account of what had happened as he seemed unaware of the reasons for what had occurred. We also asked Anna to get a letter from her doctor before the trial proper, which was set for 5th April, as her medical condition was key to what had happened.
To add a layer of complication, Anna is Russian, and although her spoken English is good, that is not enough for her to understand what is going on in court. (In fact, that’s not always easy for a native English speaker.) So, we also arranged for her to have an interpreter. And we filled the lawyer in on what Triage does and why Anna had good reason to be apprehensive over the efficiency of their communications.
The prosecution didn’t produce the detailed accusation and witness statements until the week before the trial. By that time the lawyer could only offer us a meeting in Cupar, which we couldn’t go to, so we didn’t get a chance to see the papers until the morning of the trial. Time that could have been spent explaining to Anna how the system worked and what to expect in court was wasted in slowly picking through detailed witness statements in a foreign language. Her confidence wasn’t helped by the lawyer’s explanation that although he understood how important the case was for her, he couldn’t give more time as the legal aid system only paid a limited sum. She hadn’t got anything from her doctor.
The trial started well enough, with the lawyer even using the SUWN’s protest occupation of Triage’s offices as evidence of the misery their poor service and inefficiencies can cause, but Anna was getting more and more distressed. She didn’t want to rely on the interpreter. She kept telling everyone to speak slowly and complaining of headaches. She was taken outside more than once, but the lawyer’s stern exasperated warnings only served to make her more nervous and to make her behaviour more erratic, until the sheriff declared her in contempt of court and remanded her to Corton Vale women’s prison overnight.
Thankfully, the prison experience itself appears to have been relatively civilized, but part of the sheriff’s reasoning had been that Anna could have her fitness for trial assessed by the prison doctor. There seems to have been no doctor at the prison overnight. Instead, she was visited at court the next morning by a nurse supplied by G4S, who declared her fit to proceed.
Again, Anna found the situation very difficult, but this time she managed to stay calm enough as various Triage witnesses were cross examined. Indeed she was unnaturally calm and disconnected from all that was happening, but the lawyer failed to persuade the sheriff that she was not fit to continue the case, as Anna insisted she was able to follow proceedings. (If anyone held any illusions about Triage’s commitment to their clients they would be disappointed to learn that only one of the Triage witnesses had any idea where Anna was from, and even that one was not certain. Knowing what language someone speaks might be thought a good first step to helping them find a job.)
Anna spent that night back home, and the third morning she was due to give her own evidence. But it soon became apparent that she was in no state to do so. The more we tried to explain what was happening and what was required, the more confused and frustrated she became. The lawyer, holding back his impatience, went through the legal details of the case, which were all interpreted into Russian by that day’s interpreter, Larissa. At one point there were five of us squeezed into the tiny and increasingly hot interview booth trying to set out a digestible version of the key points – but the more we tried the less Anna seemed able to comprehend. Epilepsy can also affect behaviour and comprehension outwith any actual seizures, and Anna’s response chimed with what we could learn from Googling her condition. She kept telling us that all had been confusion but was now clear – only it wasn’t because a few minutes later she would be repeating that same formula again. As the morning advanced she became ever more stressed and kept straying onto other subjects and pouring out speeches in Russian to people who didn’t understand a word of the language. Larissa observed that she wasn’t talking in a way that was translatable as it didn’t make sense. Anna has since described her agitated state as like having sparklers in the brain and a net round it, and thinking five thoughts at once. As the lunch break approached, the lawyer went into court and was able to persuade the sheriff to adjourn the case to allow time for a proper medical assessment.
Both Larissa and I accompanied Anna to her doctor’s appointment. Larissa had come all the way from Edinburgh in her own time and at her own expense because she was so concerned that Anna was not fit to stand trial. We were both able to add to Anna’s account with our own observations of her behaviour at the court, and the lawyer had written a long letter over three sides of paper explaining what was required, but I was concerned that the doctor didn’t fully grasp the seriousness of what he had to do.
On the morning we were due back in court (28th April) I got a text from Anna. She wrote that she ‘nearly lost my brain’ last time at the court. She was anxious and had had seizures during the night, so she was going to ‘go to her doctor’ today instead. I had to persuade her that not coming to court could have worse consequences, and that that day’s session would only be procedural; and I reassured her that I would be there with her. When she arrived at court she was agitated but relieved to see me – and even more relieved to see Larissa who arrived soon afterwards. When the lawyer appeared he told us he was not optimistic that the doctor’s note would be enough as it was very sparse, but he would see what he could argue. Although Anna had been told to come, she wasn’t actually needed in court, so we sat outside while the lawyer discussed with the prosecutor and sheriff. The doctor’s note was deemed insufficient, and when Anna’s lawyer tried to argue that continuing the case was disproportionate considering the minor nature of the charges, this was rejected. So the case was adjourned again until 19th June for a proper psychiatric report – assuming that legal aid would be forthcoming for this.
The 19th June came round with no sign of a psychiatrist. We had a different lawyer – actually our previous lawyer’s wife – as he was busy. Again we didn’t have to go into the court room, although a Russian interpreter was on hand ready. And again the case was postponed. The lawyer explained that they were having trouble tracking down a psychiatrist who would do this type of legal aid work. She also observed that the courts are particularly persistent in pursuing cases concerning alleged threatening behaviour towards public sector workers (including workers subcontracted to the public sector) as a result of pressure from the public sector unions. I realise that people need to feel safe at work, but that shouldn’t get in the way of common sense and discretion, especially where there is a risk of criminalising their vulnerable clients. (The interpreter’s journey at least wasn’t wasted as his skills were constantly being called on for other cases.)
The next two visits to the court, in August and October, were groundhog days. No psychiatric appointment (various leads were mentioned that then grew cold), and the case further postponed without the need for Anna to go into court. In October everything was done so quickly we only made contact with the waiting interpreter when she heard us talking afterwards.
On 5th December, with only eight days to go before Anna’s next court appearance, we were told that a psychiatrist could see her at her the lawyer’s office in Cupar the next day. The short notice meant that there had been no time to arrange an interpreter, but luckily that didn’t matter. In the privacy of a quiet meeting room, and with the patient and sympathetic approach of the psychiatrist, Anna was able to give relatively fluent and detailed responses, even to personal and searching questions; and I was able to fill in background details of the case.
The psychiatrist told us that she would argue that on the balance of possibilities, Anna’s behaviour at the time of her arrest was a result of a seizure, triggered by stress, and that she was not therefore acting according to free will; and that she was also ill at the time she was accused of contempt of court. The psychiatrist promised that she would get her report written over the weekend ready for Anna’s next appearance in court on 13th December. The hope was that this would be enough to persuade the prosecution to drop the case, but if they were determined to go ahead, the lawyer would argue for an ‘examination of the facts’ in Anna’s absence on the grounds that she could not fully comprehend what was happening. When we turned up to court we therefore expected this to be the final session; but we were informed that more time was needed for the psychiatrist’s report to be considered, so we were sent off once again with instructions to return eight days later.
Then last week, finally, on 21st December, after one further short delay while papers were retrieved from another part of the building, Anna was called into the courtroom to learn the impact of her long-awaited psychiatrist’s report. The lawyer apologised to the sheriff for the delay in getting the report done, and the sheriff observed that it was not his fault, as finding someone to do this is difficult. And then, in a matter of minutes, the procurator fiscal informed us that in the light of the circumstances explained in the report they were no longer seeking a conviction; the sheriff confirmed that Anna was therefore found not guilty and that thanks to the psychiatric report she would also be given an absolute discharge for the contempt of court; ‘and that is an end to the matter’.
After eleven court appearances, a night in prison, and fourteen months of worry and stress that could have serious impacts on her physical and mental health – and also her chances of achieving financial and social security – the system had finally produced the crucial bit of paper that allowed common sense to prevail, and Anna was free to go. As we wound down over a cup of coffee, she was still recalling her fear at her first appearance in court, back in January, and she mentioned that she is still being rung up every couple of months by Triage to check her jobsearch situation hasn’t changed.
[*] A work-programme provider is a private company subcontracted by the DWP to provide training and help with job-search for people who are unemployed. In our experience they are usually less than helpful. This programme is now almost ended.
(The image shows Lady Justice and the Greek god of medicine)