Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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a. Introduction

Magistrates and district judges need to consider a number of factors when imposing a sentence to ensure the sentence is one of punishment, rehabilitation, reparation and public protection.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council states that mental illness or disability can be a mitigating factor, and therefore, sentencing requirements should take into consideration the abilities and support needs of individual offenders. For example, if you decide to issue a fine, certain offenders, such as people with learning disabilities, are likely to need help in budgeting and managing their finances in order to pay the fine.

Section 166 Criminal Justice Act 2003 makes provision for a sentencer to take account of any matters that ‘in the opinion of the court, are relevant in mitigation of sentence’ in relation to dealing appropriately with offenders who have a mental disorder within the meaning of the Mental Health Act. This includes conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, autistic-spectrum disorders, organic disorders such as dementia, behavioural changes due to brain injury, mental disorders due to drug use, and learning disability.

Taking into consideration the needs of the offender will help to avoid unreasonable or unrealistic expectations being imposed. For example, offending behaviour programmes might need adapting for offenders with learning disabilities. Offenders with mental health conditions might need help to address their condition before they are able to respond positively to other sentencing requirements.

Film clip 14 (04:23 mins)

Magistrates discuss the importance of addressing the individual needs of offenders when imposing a sentence. People with mental health conditions and learning disabilities talk about their experiences of sentencing.

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