Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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1. Welcome and introduction

High numbers of people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities, autism or other vulnerabilities come into contact with the criminal justice system as perpetrators and victims. It can be difficult to recognise when someone has a mental health condition, learning disability or autism.

In his review into people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, Lord Bradley highlighted the importance of mental health and learning disability awareness training for criminal justice staff including members of the judiciary. The Magistrates’ Association supports this need for information and training.

This resource has been produced primarily for magistrates. It is also useful for district judges, legal advisers and ushers, and health and justice professionals  and practitioners. It provides information about some of the common characteristics of mental health conditions, learning disabilities, autism and communication difficulties, and highlights how members of the judiciary and court staff might deal with adult defendants with these conditions.

Members of the judiciary and court staff are not expected to diagnose conditions or disabilities, neither is it their role to provide welfare services to defendants. They do, however, have a responsibility to raise concerns about defendants who they think might be vulnerable.

This resource provides an overview of the signs to be aware of that may indicate that someone has a mental health condition, learning disability, autism or communication difficulty. Having a feeling that ‘something isn’t quite right’, or thinking that a defendant is behaving oddly, is enough justification to ask for more information about that defendant. Asking for more information about a defendant can happen at any point during court proceedings.

All defendants have the right to a fair trial. There are some defendants who are vulnerable and might need additional support. This could be due to their age or developmental immaturity, or to particular conditions such as learning disabilities, mental health conditions, or autism.

Criminal Practice Directions (CPD 1 General Matters, 3D: (2015) Vulnerable people in the courts notes that:

...'vulnerable' includes those under 18 years of age and people with a mental disorder or learning disability; a physical disorder or disability; or who are likely to suffer fear or distress in giving evidence because of their own circumstances or those relating to the case.

People with mental health conditions, learning disabilities, autism or communication difficulties are not homogenous groups with identical experiences and needs. They are individuals with a wide range of different life experiences, strengths, weaknesses and support needs. Many, however, will share some common characteristics, which might make them especially vulnerable in court. People can experience mild to severe conditions and this will affect the level of support they might need.

This resource draws on prevalence data from different research studies, all of which produced statistically significant results. Nonetheless, they show some differences, largely due to different research methodologies. Despite these variations, it is clear that high numbers of people with vulnerabilities routinely appear in the criminal courts.

The primary focus of this resource is vulnerable adult defendants. However, much of what is covered will apply also to child defendants and vulnerable witnesses in the criminal court.

"The Magistrates’ Association, together with the Justices’ Clerks’ Society and Judicial College, has been pleased to be involved in the production of this resource. As magistrates, we have all seen defendants who we believe should not be in court; this is something we can’t change. But we can affect how they are dealt with. This resource will be invaluable in helping us to respond more appropriately towards these individuals. Not only should it be required reading, but its content should be embedded into our practices. The criminal justice system may rightly be focussed on the victim, but unless we deal appropriately with the offender, nothing will change. As the incoming chair of the Magistrates’ Association, I will encourage its use and application in the criminal courts."
Richard Monkhouse, chair, Magistrates’ Association (2013-2015)

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