Getting it right in court for vulnerable defendants

I was recently contacted by one of our Liaison and Diversion Community Link Workers who had serious concerns about a young man who was in prison awaiting trial for aggravated burglary.

He had an Intellectual Disability (ID) and Autism, and was extremely vulnerable.

The court had not been made aware of his vulnerabilities before the decision to send him to remand prison. When we met, I found he had significant difficulties coping, could not understand the prison regime and was exploited by other prisoners.

I was able to complete some assessments, provide my opinion about his abilities and advise on the right reasonable adjustments to ensure he could take part in the court proceedings. These included recommending the use of an Intermediary to help with communication and regular breaks throughout the hearing so he could understand better, through bite-sized chunks of information.

It has been my role to explain to the court why such an individual would struggle with a custodial sentence because of their vulnerability and the various ways in which they find it hard to understand things. It is necessary to continually raise awareness of a person’s vulnerability and bring it to the court’s attention. After all, a person’s intellectual disability isn’t necessarily apparent and individuals may even try to hide their difficulties.

Preventing someone like this chap from going into custody would therefore be a significant outcome. This case is yet to conclude, but it is heartening to see how all involved are trying to obtain the best possible result for someone so vulnerable.

To help us ensure people with ID are identified and appropriately supported at the police station and in court, we have developed our own screening tool  – the Rapid Assessment of Potential Intellectual Disability: ‘RAPID’) – and all our L&D Practitioners are trained in ID awareness. Whilst this is a positive step in the right direction, we have by no means ‘cracked it!’ and there is still a long way to go.

Sometimes the process requires further exploration by way of a clinical interview and further screening or assessments. Being able to offer colleagues working within the court additional support and specialist advice can have a huge impact on the way they facilitate the legal process. It is important to paint a picture for the court, and really help it to understand how an ID may contribute to vulnerability and its potential role in someone’s offending. When the whole process works, it works really well and, without sounding cheesy, it is really rewarding to be a part of such a process.

I feel we have made substantial progress over the years for offenders with ID and I am confident we can continue building on this success and improving the process of early identification, whilst embedding procedures for adequate screening and assessment.

I feel that being consistent in our approach and working together are key ingredients in helping this group of individuals. It is a really exciting and challenging area of work, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds.

You can read more about the work of the national Liaison and Diversion programme and how it operates in a Magistrates Court and Crown Court.

Salma ali

Salma Ali is a Liaison & Diversion Practitioner, specialising in working within people with Intellectual Disability. She has worked in Liaison & Diversion for the past 6 years, and has been integral in the development of a screening and assessment pathway for offenders with Intellectual Disability within the offender care service at the Central & North-West London Foundation Trust, as well as the development of the ‘RAPID’ screening tool.

One comment

  1. Sarah George says:

    I do like the idea of a more efficient screening tool. I recently did a paper for my MSc on a case study with AS. As I delved further into the research, I was shocked to speak to police officers who agreed during arrest and initial custody, there was little in the way of training for officers in such a specialised area, despite it becoming more common (or recognised). I would be interested to see how this gets on