Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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d. How to recognise when a defendant might have a learning disability - Film Clip

Film clip 5 (05:42 mins)

Four people with learning disabilities talk about their experiences of going to court, what might have helped and how their learning disabilities could have been raised in court.


Certain terminology, names and organisations are referred to and these are described below:

  • Working for Justice Group: this is a group of individuals with learning disabilities who have been in contact with the criminal justice system as suspects, defendants, offenders and prisoners. The Group is supported by KeyRing Living Support Network and the Prison Reform Trust.
  • KeyRing Living Support Network is a voluntary organisation that provides support for people with learning disabilities to live independently in the community
  • Some interviewees say they have learning difficulties. Some people with learning disabilities use the term learning difficulty because it seems less stigmatising than learning disability. The terms are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing.
  • One interviewee has learning disabilities and is on the autistic spectrum.

A learning disability can be a ‘hidden disability’, which means there are often no visual clues. Many people with learning disabilities will try to hide their condition for fear of ridicule or embarrassment. They may try to appear the same as everyone else. It is possible for someone with learning disabilities to appear in court without anyone having recognised his or her condition or particular support needs.

There are some signs that you can look out for that might suggest that a defendant has a learning disability. A defendant with learning disabilities might:

  • respond inappropriately to questions or instructions
  • use words inappropriately
  • not understand common criminal justice and court terminology, for example, words such as remand, custody and bail
  • respond inappropriately to their situation as a defendant in court. For example falling asleep, gazing around the court room or not paying attention to what is happening
  • take longer to answer a question or follow an instruction
  • appear unduly anxious, distressed, angry or frustrated
  • appear withdrawn and say little in response to questions.

The Prison Reform Trust interviewed people with learning disabilities to find out about their experiences of being a defendant in court, and this is what they said:

  • The judges don’t speak English, they say these long words I have never heard of in my life.
  • I didn’t know what ‘remanded’ meant. I thought it meant I could come back later.
  • I couldn’t really hear. I couldn’t understand but I said ‘yes, whatever’ to anything because if I say, ‘I don’t know’ they look at me as if I’m thick. Sometimes they tell you two things at once.
  • I was upset; I didn’t know why I was there. I really didn’t think I had done anything wrong.
  • I didn’t know what was going on and there’s no one there to explain things to you. They tell you to read things and in court you can’t just ask for help. The judge thinks you can read and write just because you can speak English.

[Note: interviewees referred to magistrates as judges.]

© Prison Reform Trust and Rethink Mental Illness. All rights reserved.