Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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a. What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a condition that combines:

  • a low IQ of less than 70 (described as impaired intelligence) with
  • a reduced ability to cope independently and to adapt to the daily demands of a normal social environment (described as impaired social functioning).

A learning disability:

  • is a lifelong condition and not an illness. A learning disability cannot be ‘cured’
  • is often described as a ‘hidden disability’ as it is not immediately obvious when someone has a learning disability.

Someone can have mild, moderate or severe learning disabilities. People with mild to moderate learning disabilities are the most likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Having a ‘borderline’ learning disability or a low IQ (between 70 and 80) is not the same as having a learning disability. There are, however, many shared characteristics and support needs.

Most people with learning disabilities have greater health needs than the general population. They are more likely to experience mental health conditions and are more prone to chronic health problems, such as epilepsy and physical and sensory disabilities. People with learning disabilities can also be on the autistic spectrum.

A learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty. The terms are mistakenly used interchangeably, which can be confusing. Learning difficulties includes a range of conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. People with learning difficulties can have a range of IQ levels from below average to above average. Further information about specific learning difficulties can be found in Section 7: Other disabilities and impairments.

Learning disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act 2010 protects disabled people from being discriminated against. It protects people from discrimination at work, when applying for jobs or when they use services, which includes HM Courts and Tribunals Service (you can get more information about discrimination and the Equality Act 2010 from Rethink Mental Illness at

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