Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Who is Vulnerable

What is a vulnerable group?

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about the issues that may affect some of the vulnerable groups on St Helena.  Vulnerable people are those who are more likely to be discriminated against than others in the society in which they live.  On St. Helena these groups include: women; children; persons with disabilities; older persons; those detained in prison; and people who are less well educated than others.

‘Vulnerable’ should be understood as a comparative term, and not as a negative one. For example women in Afghanistan are denied the right to education; in parts of China and India girl babies are aborted or killed at birth; in the UK women regularly apply to the courts on the grounds that they were selected against for jobs and promotion. All face discrimination, and all are vulnerable, to a greater or lesser extent.

Often this discrimination occurs because the people who make up the vulnerable groups are less well represented in Government, on committees or other decision making bodies. This means that the needs of, or the impact of a decision on the vulnerable may not be fully understood.

Who might be vulnerable here?

Here are the statistics for the sizes of the vulnerable groups on St. Helena:

49% of the total population
Under 18
Over 65
16.5 of the total population
2.5% of the total population
Those detained in prison
This is an average figure over the last 3 years
Those who are less well educated
Of the population over 12 years old have difficulty reading and/or writing

St Helena Census 2008 (source SHG web-site)

In addition to these, we have a group not represented elsewhere.  During the ten years between the 1998 census and the one taken in 2008, the island’s population declined from 5,644 to 4,255. This decline is due to economic migration, with many people of working age leaving to go to The Falkland Islands, Ascension and the UK. Often one or both parents of children will go overseas, leaving their children with relatives or friends.  This group contains around 185 children about 20% of the population under 18. It is generally thought on the island that this group of children may be particularly vulnerable but no practical research has been done (to my knowledge) to find out if this is indeed the case.

Over the coming weeks I will be looking at each of these groups, to see where their rights may be being infringed.  I’ll start next week with our children and young people.

Personal Liberty

What does my right to personal freedom mean?

The Constitution says that we cannot be deprived of our personal liberty but I know I can go to prison if I commit a crime so under what circumstances can I be deprived of my freedom?

The Constitution says that, as an adult (children and young people will be covered in a later article) and a resident of St Helena, you can only be deprived of you freedom if:

1.      There is a legal reason to hold you:

a.      You have been sentenced by a recognised court having been convicted of an offence;

b.      A court order is issued because you have not done what the court instructed (for example, repaying a debt, paying a fine or because you were summoned to court and did not attend);

c.       You have been held in contempt of court;

d.      The police have reasonable suspicion of your having committed or of being about to commit a criminal offence;

e.      You are unfit to plead to a criminal charge for example you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

2.      You are being held for your safety or to ensure the safety of others. This too will be covered in a later article.

So what are my rights if I am detained?

Whether or not you have committed a crime or any of the above you still have rights.

First of all you must be told promptly and in a language that you understand, the reason for your arrest or detention, and this must be confirmed in writing.

You have the right to have a legal representative to help you, and this must be provided as soon as possible after you ask for one.  If you can’t afford to pay for one you can have a Lay Advocate or the Public Solicitor. Either way if you have asked for representation you can be held until that representative arrives, but you cannot be questioned, unless you agree to it.

You have the right to remain silent; you do not have to answer any questions or volunteer any information.  Your legal representative will advise you whether it is in your best interest to answer a question.

You must be reminded of these rights as soon as you arrive at any ‘place of custody’ (prison, police station, etc.) On St Helena this is usually done in a room in the prison set aside for this purpose.  

The officer explaining your rights must ask you who wish to be informed that you have been arrested and where you are being held, and must ensure that they are informed immediately. The only exception to this is where the police reasonably believe that informing someone of your arrest may obstruct their investigations (e.g. telling someone who may also be involved in the alleged crime).

Note the word “reasonably” above.  Throughout this part of the Constitution you will find the term ‘reasonable’ so it’s worth asking: “who decides what is reasonable?” The test that is applied is to ask: “What would most ordinary sensible people on St. Helena consider reasonable?” If you do not believe you have been treated reasonably you have the right to make a complaint and it may even be a basis for your defence in court.

If the police decide to charge you with an offence you may go to trial, so next week I plan to discuss your right to a fair trial.