Judge me not: Supporting neurodiverse people in court

The Ministry of Justice has announced that there are now Neurodiversity Support Managers in every public prison in England and Wales, a central tenet of their 2022 Neurodiversity Action Plan in which Revolving Doors played a key role.

However, it’s not just prisons. A disproportionate number of people in the criminal justice system are neurodiverse, but often struggle to access the support they need for successful rehabilitation, instead facing misunderstanding and condemnation for behaviour and actions driven by their neurodiversity.

Lived experience member David recently supported his son, who has ADHD, through a crown court trial. Here he shares his reflections on how the court provided support and consideration of his son’s neurodiversity.

Throughout my years trapped in the revolving doors of crisis and crime, court – be it juvenile, magistrate or crown – became a regular occurrence for me, whether in the dock or supporting a friend. However, recently, I had a first-time experience of supporting my son in court after he had been accused of a crime allegedly committed in July 2022. Following a four-day trial the jury found my son not guilty on all charges in less than an hour. If you’re reading this and have shared the experience of supporting your child in court, then I have no need to explain my feelings. If you haven’t experienced it, I’m sorry, but I can’t explain them.

Just like me, my son was diagnosed with ADHD. However, unlike me, he was diagnosed as a teenager, I was diagnosed in my 41st year. My experiences of court never ended well, and I don’t mean a verdict and/or a sentence, even though they didn’t end well either. Would jury members think I was sorry and remorseful, or even not guilty, if my behaviour made me look like I wasn’t paying attention to the case, or at worse disrespecting the proceedings? I’d like to think most of my behaviour in court, and the subsequent consequences of my behaviour was a lack of awareness and understanding of my ADHD, and not just by the courts, but also by me.

However, with my son being diagnosed early, it was a case of forewarned is forearmed. At his initial magistrates hearing, prior to being sent to crown court, my son’s ADHD was discussed, as was the need for reasonable adjustments. In the period of waiting for crown court my son was provided with an impartial intermediary by the court to help with communication and understanding.

Before his trial began and the jury were present, his barrister, the prosecutor and the judge had a discussion about my son’s ADHD and what reasonable adjustments needed to be made.  To accommodate his needs, the court allowed him to take breaks when necessary and to have an object to fidget with during the proceedings.

With the jury present, the judge explained how the jury may also observe my son looking down or even laughing at times that may seem inappropriate. The judge said she wanted to ensure the jury my son’s actions are not meant as any disrespect towards the court or the process and the fact reasonable adjustments were being made demonstrated his sincere desire to participate as fully as possible.

The judge also asked the jury to not draw any negative inferences from my son’s reactions or behaviours and explained he is doing his utmost to be present and engaged despite the challenges he faces. She finished by saying to the jury that their understanding and lack of judgment in the matter would be greatly appreciated.

By explaining the situation clearly yet sensitively, the judge promoted awareness while requesting compassion from the jury. She was formal yet personal in advocating for my son’s needs while upholding respect for the judicial process.

We’ll never know, but I do wonder what the outcome would have been without reasonable adjustments and the judge’s words.