Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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b. Literacy

Literacy rates in prison are low. 48% of prisoners are at or below Level 1 in reading, and 82% are at or below Level 1 in writing (Office for National Statistics, 2003). Level 1 is the same as a GCSE grade D to G which is roughly the same as that expected of a 14 year old.

Problems with literacy can be caused by difficulties understanding, processing and retaining information. Knowing whether an individual can read and write will help you to understand, and to further explore, what support needs individual defendants might have. For example, defendants might be unable to read their police interview, the oath or court orders. They might be able to read some but not all of the documents they are presented with. They might also have difficulties understanding certain words.

Finding out if a defendant has literacy problems needs to be handled sensitively. For example, you could begin by saying that criminal justice/court documents often use complex legal language that makes them hard to understand; you could then ask if the defendant would like more time to read documents or if they would like any help with understanding the language used.

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