Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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a. Introduction

The overriding principle in supporting vulnerable defendants in court is that:

All possible steps should be taken to assist a vulnerable defendant to understand and participate in [court] proceedings (Consolidated Criminal Practice Direction, 2013: treatment of vulnerable defendants).

Where mental health conditions, learning disabilities or other conditions are known about, or suspected, the court administration and magistrates or district judges should act on this information. Special arrangements for vulnerable defendants should, wherever possible, be made in advance of an individual’s first appearance in court.

A number of guidance documents are available to assist you in making special arrangements and these include the Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETTB, 2013), part 5: Age, including children and vulnerable adults, part 6: Physical disability overview, part 7: Mental disability, including mental illness and the Criminal Justice Practice Directions, 2013.

ETBB guidance notes that people with disabilities:

  • are likely to need more time – so a longer time estimate may be required for a trial
  • may not be able to hear, read or be understood or fully comprehend what is taking place
  • will be using up much of their energy to cope with the disability and therefore tire more easily, and 
  • the stress of coming to court may exacerbate symptoms (part 6).

The ETBB notes that guidance provides ‘only broad indications owing to the need to treat each person as an individual’. In other words – although guidance is given, it remains necessary to find out what the particular support needs of each individual defendant might be.

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