Autistic defendants are being failed by the criminal justice system

A survey of lawyers by the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge has revealed that an overwhelming majority of their autistic clients were not provided with adequate support or adjustments

Researchers conducted a survey of 93 defence lawyers about autistic people they represented in the last five years, to find out about their defendants’ experiences of navigating the CJS. Lawyers from 12 nations were consulted, with the UK predominantly represented in the client sample.

The study revealed that:

  • Only half of autistic people (52%) were considered by the police to be vulnerable adults, even though UK law recognises all autistic people as vulnerable
  • Over a third (35%) of autistic defendants were not given an appropriate adult during police investigations, even though their diagnosis was known to police, and despite all autistic people being entitled under the law to have an appropriate adult present when being interviewed by the police
  • In just under half of the cases that included a trial by jury (47%), the jury was not informed that the defendant was autistic

The study follows an Equality and Human Rights Commission report in June 2020 that warned that the CJS is failing those with learning disabilities and autistic people.

Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the ARC and a member of the research team, commented: “There’s an urgent need across the criminal justice system for increased awareness about autism. The police, lawyers, judges and jurors should be given mandatory training to be aware of how autism affects an individual’s behaviour, so that autistic defendants are treated fairly within the criminal justice system.”

Funding for the project was provided by the Autism Centre of Excellence.

As a national support network for autistic and neurodivergent police officers and staff, the NPAA advocates and shares best practice for police forces working with the autistic community, such as always providing autistic people with an appropriate adult in police custody.

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