Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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c. Guidance and practice directions

Guidance documents and practice directions are available to assist you in making special arrangements, and these include the Equal Treatment Bench Book 2013 and Criminal Practice Directions 2015. 

The Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB) 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 thier energy to cope with the disability and therefore tire more easily, and that
  • the stress of coming to court may exacerbate symptoms. 

The ETBB further 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 needs of each individual defendant might be.

Relevant ETBB chapters include:




Despite lack of legislation, arrangements can be made to assist vulnerable defendants, and there is guidance in the Criminal Practice Direction, 2013: vulnerable defendants. The direction outlines a range of measures that should be adopted, where appropriate, ‘to assist a vulnerable defendant to understand and to participate in ...proceedings’.

These include:

  • arranging for a defendant to visit the court room before a court hearing or trial so he or she can familiarise themselves with it
  • using ‘simple, clear language that the defendant can understand’
  • holding the proceedings in a court room in which all participants are on the same, or almost the same level
  • allowing the defendant to sit with members of their family and/or other supporting adults, and in a place where they can easily communicate with their legal representatives
  • restricting attendance by members of the public and reporters.

Of particular note are parts 3D: Vulnerable People in the Courts, 3E: Ground Rules Hearings to Plan the Questioning of a Vulnerable Witness or Defendant, 3F: Intermediaries, 3G: Vunerable Defendants and Evidence 29A: Measures to Assist a Witness or Defendant to Give Evidence.

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