Andy Fitzpatrick Reports on the National Autistic Society’s Annual Conference

The National Autistic Society held their national conference in Manchester on April 6th and 7th 2017. Given that the theme of the conference was the Treatment of Offenders with an Intellectual and/or Developmental Disability, it was striking how few lawyers were at the conference either as delegates or speakers. That is a shame because there is much for lawyers to learn about how we work with clients with such significant difficulties.

“If you’ve met one person with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you’ve met one person with ASD.” The range of disability spans from someone like my nephew, James who is profoundly autistic, with no speech and requiring 24/7 care, up to the high functioning, Asperger sufferer, Tom Hayes (the LIBOR fixer conspirator, who was sentenced to 14 years - reduced to 11 on appeal).

Our experience in Chambers ranges from our work with clients subject to Mental Health Sections, to those within the criminal justice system on issues of fitness to plead and associated mental health defences), to those without capacity involved in Court of Protection matters. I learned that lawyers have a lot to catching up to do regarding our understanding of ASD and associated conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Difficulties and Personality Disorders. These conditions are often not identified early enough or are misidentified, with dreadful consequences as far as positive treatment paths being identified and appropriate adjustments made. There are often difficult to diagnose overlaps with Personality Disorders and well understood Mental Health conditions.  

The conference had an international flavour, with some brilliant and inspirational speakers from Scandinavia and Holland. The topics discussed ranged from patient confidentiality, to the way prisoners are assessed as suitable for Offender Behaviour Programmes and how ASD prisoners fare in Parole Board Oral Hearings. “Psychology speak” was sometimes hard going (which should make us lawyers reflect upon the way we are perceived from without), but it was extremely worthwhile.

I would urge all lawyers to visit the NAS website and follow helpful links for information and advice. Moreover, Chambers and Olliers Solicitors are arranging a one-day “Vulnerable People in the Justice System”conference, on June 8th 2017 in Manchester, for professionals in the justice system and I invite everyone reading to attend. It is aimed at improving understanding so as to ensure that vulnerable people are able to properly and fully participate in legal processes affecting them. All profits will go to the NAS and booking details will be available on Chambers’ website soon.

We must defend and advance the best interests of these seriously disadvantaged clients who are so often neglected in the justice and care system.

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