Defendants with learning disabilities are routinely deprived of help with understanding criminal court proceedings, a report from the Prison Reform Trust has revealed.
The report, published this week, found there was no systematic procedure for identifying adults with learning disabilities. Some defendants did not know why they were in court or what they had done wrong, the report claimed.
A third of 154 respondents with learning difficulties who were interviewed said using simpler language would help, and one in 10 said they had difficulties expressing themselves and felt rushed.
The report called for more support for vulnerable defendants, training to help the judiciary recognise mental impairments and full compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Malcolm Fowler, a criminal defence lawyer at Birmingham firm Jonas Roy Bloom, said: ‘This report is disgracefully overdue. In my 42 years as a solicitor, there has been a constant stream of clarion calls and alarm bells on this very issue, but the government remains in denial.’
Law Society council member for criminal defence Joy Merriam said: ‘A defendant’s condition is often picked up in a Crown court trial, where the defence can call for psychiatric reports, but this is less practical in magistrates’ courts.’
She added that the government’s enthusiasm for virtual courts, whereby the defendant appears via videolink, could mean many more vulnerable adults go unrepresented.
‘There is [sometimes] no direct contact between defendant and lawyer with virtual courts, and so it’s less likely the condition will be spotted.’