Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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Communication difficulties summary


  • Communication difficulties are sometimes referred to as speech, language and communication needs or communication disabilities. These terms describe people who have difficulty with one or more aspect of communication, and there are a wide range of difficulties and corresponding needs.
  • Communication difficulties can be primary, such as specific language impairment or a stammer; or secondary due to conditions such as learning disability, autism, hearing impairment and certain mental health conditions.
  • Although limited research has been undertaken amongst adult offenders, high numbers are thought to have speech, language and communication needs; research demonstrates that around two-thirds of adult prisoners with learning disabilities and difficulties experience problems with verbal comprehension skills, including understanding certain words and in expressing themselves.
  • It can be hard to recognise when a defendant has speech, language and communication needs and, where they exist, liaison and diversion services can help.
  • There are a number of straight forward communication rules that can help a defendant to participate in proceedings; however, there will be occasions when more specialist help is needed and this can be provided by an intermediary (see Section 11e (i), Specialist communication support - intermediaries). 

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