Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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b. What does it mean to have a learning disability?

People with learning disabilities are likely to:

  • have limited language ability, comprehension and communication skills, which might mean they
  • have difficulty understanding and responding to questions
  • have difficulty recalling and processing information
  • be acquiescent and suggestible. When under pressure they may try to appease people. For example, if asked the same question more than once, they might change their answer thinking they had got their first answer ‘wrong’
  • have difficulties reading and writing
  • have difficulties filling in forms
  • have difficulties telling the time
  • have difficulties following instructions
  • be unable to concentrate for long periods of time
  • have difficulties understanding social norms, such as reading body language and taking turns find new situations, such as appearing in court, especially stressful.

People with learning disabilities might need support with daily living, for example, with personal care, cooking and ensuring bills are paid on time. Support can come from various sources including social or health services, family members and friends, and voluntary organisations. Access to statutory support for people with a learning disability can be limited and hard to get. Some adults with learning disabilities live independently in the community. Others may live in care homes, in supported accommodation, or with parents or other family members.

People with learning disabilities often don’t have the same friendship and social networks as other people and their lives can often be lonely and solitary. In looking for friendship, they might form inappropriate relationships with people who might take advantage of them or with people who are much younger than they are.

Not everyone with a learning disability will be known to social services, and not everyone with a learning disability will be aware of their condition. Evidence shows that only around a fifth of people with a learning disability are known to learning disability services (Emerson et al, 2011).

With appropriate support, people with learning disabilities can lead full and productive lives.

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