Through the work of my colleague Alex Preston, we at Olliers have received training in autism awareness. This has informed and improved our work with clients particularly where we meet unknown clients for the first time in police stations and when assisting clients with a known diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
The National Autistic Society’s Conference
On Monday this week, Alex and I attended The National Autistic Society’s conference on Autism and the Criminal Justice System. The day combined a range of informative speakers with the chance to meet and learn from professionals working in different facets of criminal justice including psychologists working in prisons, prison officers working on cybercrime and individuals with autism working to raise awareness and understanding .
Mental Health Issues at the Police Station
A particularly interesting session was led by Mark Jenkins, a police constable working with the Cheshire Police Force mental health street triage. He described how the scheme has come about due to reduction in mental health services leading to significant rise in police callouts to individuals in crisis. The scheme operates with an officer responding to such calls accompanied by a mental health nurse. This allows those in crisis to speak to someone with mental health skills and knowledge. It has led to an overall reduction in detention by the police for mental health assessment of 44%. It also means a much wider range of options for the individual in crisis and the significant saving of costs to the police.
A further session focussed on strategies to prepare, assess, plan and support clients appearing in court. This included a helpful discussion of the different types of assessment that may be required, for example, communication assessment and assessment of cogitative function and of the use of expert witnesses and intermediaries. This was probably the most productive session for my future work.
Fitness to Plead
During recent years, I have dealt with a number of cases where the client’s mental health raised questions about whether they are fit to plead. Laura McDavitt from the Law Commission gave an interesting overview of their work on the law in this area. The commission has, through review and research, formed the view that the law on fitness to plead is outdated, misunderstood and inconsistently applied. For example, she highlighted the different processes for addressing mental capacity within the crown court, magistrates court and youth court. In this area they recommend introducing a system to consider capacity to participate effectively in trial comparable to that suggested for the crown court. Their report and draft bill are available.
Overall the day provided a greater degree of understanding of issues related to autism and our work and the Autistic Society can be praised for bringing together such a useful event.
Martha Whitehead – Criminal Defence Solicitor
Written by Martha Whitehead. Martha is a highly experienced solicitor who specialises in the defence of serious crime. She has over 20 years of experience as a specialist crime practitioner including regular work in police stations both as a duty solicitor and called upon by Olliers clients.