Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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Many people who come into contact with criminal justice services have multiple and complex needs, and high numbers have mental health and learning disabilities. In December 2007 I was invited by the government to undertake an independent review of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system.

What began as a six month review of the organisation and effectiveness of court liaison and diversion schemes was extended to over 12 months. This extension was to ensure comprehensive consideration of vulnerable individuals at each stage of the criminal justice process. My report (Department of Health, 2009) contained 82 recommendations and most of these are being taken forward.

One of my recommendations was that members of the judiciary – and criminal justice staff – should undertake mental health and learning disability awareness training. I am especially pleased that the Judicial College, Justices’ Clerks’ Society and the Magistrates’ Association have joined with the Prison Reform Trust and Rethink Mental Illness to produce this valuable resource. While it is not the role of the judiciary and court staff to ‘diagnose’ mental health or learning disability, it is important that they are able to recognise certain behaviours that warrant further investigation. Members of the judiciary should also be aware of support measures they can call upon to ensure an individual’s participation in court proceedings, and disposal options appropriate to the care and support needs of individual offenders.

Another of my key recommendations that should further help members of the judiciary concerns liaison and diversion services. Members of the judiciary need access to timely information concerning the particular support needs of individual defendants. For example, what help is needed to ensure effective participation in court proceedings, when certain disposal options might be appropriate, such as the mental health treatment requirement, and how disposal options might need to be adapted for offenders with a learning disability. I am pleased, therefore, that the government has made a commitment for every police custody suite and criminal court in England to have access to liaison and diversion services by 2017; similar services exist in Wales. These services should help members of the judiciary to identify when an individual might have mental health or learning disabilities, how best they might be supported through the criminal justice process or, where necessary, be diverted away from criminal justice and into treatment and care.

Five years on, an independent review, by the Centre for Mental Health (2014), of progress to date and priorities for further development was published. From this review, there was evidence of good progress made and important further developments for liaison and diversion services.

This excellent resource, which is available on-line and in hard copy, will help members of the judiciary to recognise when further information about an individual defendant might be necessary, how to get that information, and how to use it to inform their decision making.

Lord Bradley

The Rt Hon Lord Bradley

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