People who have suffered a serious brain injury can face significant daily challenges and unfair treatment often because of low levels of awareness and understanding in society of their condition; ignorance that has an immediate personal impact on my clients. If you’ve never experienced an acquired brain injury, or met someone who has, it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which brain injury survivors are too often unfairly stigmatised, so I invite you to put yourself in their shoes for a short while.

Living with a brain injury

Just imagine. Three years ago you sustained an acquired brain injury. Maybe you fell from height. Perhaps you were involved in a road collision. Or maybe you were the victim of a violent assault. 

We have partnered with Headway to promote education and awareness of brain injuries in the criminal justice system

Alternatively, your injury may have been caused by stroke, tumour or an infection. Regardless of the cause, you were left with a brain injury that robbed you of your health and independence – and very nearly of your life.

Since then, you’ve spent months – possibly years – working with healthcare professionals and rehab experts, fighting to regain every inch of mobility and every ounce of independence and confidence possible. With love and support from those around you, you’ve gradually made a return to everyday life. But, after all that, a visit to the shops ends with your being detained by the police on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly.

Consider the unfairness and indignity of being accused of being drunk because your hard-fought-for speech had returned – albeit with a slight impediment, a little slurred. Or of being asked if you’d ‘had a few too many’ because, despite spending hours with physiotherapists, your gait remained slightly uneven, and maintaining your balance was hard.

Fast forward to the police station. A stressful situation by any measure, but doubly-so for a survivor of a brain injury, whose symptoms sometimes include memory loss, confusion and communication problems. You naturally become very agitated, keen to clearly communicate the reason for your behaviour but perhaps unable to do so. “This one’s trouble”, thinks the officer, before escorting you to a cell.

Changing misconceptions about brain injuries across the criminal justice system

This story is not wholly invented. Nor is it a one off. Research has shown that there is a high prevalence of brain injury in offending institutions both in the UK and around the world. Headway – the brain injury association, reports that brain injury survivors often have negative experiences when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

That’s why we are so proud to have partnered with Headway to develop and launch its Justice Project, an initiative designed to help promote education and awareness of brain injury across the criminal justice system in the UK.

The Headway Brain Injury Identity Card is a key aspect of Headway’s Justice Project, offering a simple solution to tricky conversations. The identity card can be applied for by people with a verifiable brain injury are free-of-charge to brain injury survivors over the age of 18 throughout the UK, and includes personalised information about the card holder which explains the effects of their brain injury and what support they might need.

The identity cards are designed to make it easier for police officers and staff – who are not mind readers and are often acting in what they think are the person’s best interests – to identify brain injury survivors and make sure they receive proper support. In addition, the cards also provide survivors with peace of mind that if they come into contact with emergency services, or otherwise need support during social situations, their needs can be made clear to others.

The ID cards provide information about a 24 hour legal helpline, staffed by Thompsons Solicitors, which offers free advice and representation at police stations if card-holders are detained. The helpline enables people taken into custody to have access to expert criminal law advice quickly from specially trained and empathetic lawyers at no cost, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You can find out more about the ID cards, and how to apply by visiting Headway’s website.

Promoting access to justice for brain injury survivors

The impact of the scheme has been immense. Carrying a simple card, which can be presented quickly and easily to the police, has ensured that brain injury survivors have a safer, calmer experience within the criminal justice system (and in other contact with authority). Previously, if a brain injury survivor was arrested and interviewed at a police station, there would be no guarantee that the duty solicitor would understand their injury. The survivor themselves may not always understand why they were there, or recognise the importance of legal representation – putting their access to justice at risk.

The Justice Project initiative has been widely praised by brain injury survivors and in February 2019 won a Zero Project award for Innovative Practice at a global disability conference in Vienna.

More recently, we have been shortlisted in the Access to Justice category of the Law Society Excellence Awards.

Working with Headway on the Justice Project has been immensely rewarding for the firm. Not only has the scheme developed our understanding of the complexities of brain injury and the issues facing brain injury survivors in the criminal justice system, but we have also found that the identity cards have helped to increase understanding of brain injury amongst police staff who interact with brain injury survivors.

As a firm, we have fought to protect access to justice for the vulnerable since our inception. Our work with Headway is a practical way that we can help to improve outcomes for brain injury survivors who come into contact with the criminal justice system, and we will continue to fight to ensure no one has to fight their legal battles on their own.