Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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e. Communication in court - Film Clip

Film clip 8 (06:07 mins)

Two speech and language therapists and two people with learning disabilities talk about some of the difficulties experienced in court by people with poor communication skills. Some suggestions about what you can do to help are made.

Effective communication underlies the entire legal process: ensuring that everyone involved understands and is understood; otherwise the legal process will be impeded or derailed (Chapter 2: Judgecraft, Equal Treatment Bench Book 2013).

Many vulnerable defendants will experience difficulties with communication and comprehension. Magistrates and district judges are expected to deal with such difficulties ‘as part and parcel of the ordinary control of the judicial process.’ Being able to communicate in court and understand what is happening is fundamental to an individual being able to participate effectively in court proceedings. Conversely, a lack of understanding on the part of the defendant and an inability to participate effectively in court can lead to feelings of frustration and anger, which can impede court proceedings.

For many vulnerable defendants some simple communication ‘rules’ can help, see Box 4, below. However, if you remain concerned that a defendant is unable to understand or to communicate effectively in court, specialist help should be sought; see Section 11e: i) Specialist communication support - intermediaries.

Box 4: Supporting communication and comprehension in court

  • Use the defendant’s name and ensure you have their attention before you begin speaking to him or her.
  • Explain in simple language and short sentences what is going to happen at each stage of court proceedings. As a general rule give one piece of information per sentence.
  • Don’t ask, ‘do you understand?’ A ‘yes’ response or a nod does not necessarily mean the individual does understand. Instead, ask the defendant to tell you what they have understood.
  • Avoid using jargon and technical or legal terminology. If such language cannot be avoided, explain what it means and check understanding. 
  • Allow extra thinking time so that the defendant can process information and consider their response before replying. 
  • Offer support with reading and understanding documents in court. Being able to read a document doesn’t mean the defendant understands the content. This may still need explaining. 
  • If the defendant is unable to write very well, he or she might need help in making notes of proceedings. For example, a defendant might be able to follow proceedings or take notes but not do both at the same time.
  • Allow a defendant to sit next to their advocate, carer or a family member. This can help to reduce the stress of appearing in court and enhance defendants’ participation in proceedings. 
  • Ensure court documents are accessible, for example, written in Easy Read. Further information about Easy Read can be found in Box 3: Easy Read.
  • Ensure the defendant can hear proceedings clearly. Ensure glass security screens do not impede the defendant’s ability to hear.
  • Defendants with communication and comprehension difficulties might tire more easily and need extra breaks. Such breaks should not be used as ‘explanation time’.

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