The criminal justice sector must adapt to ensure that people with autism are provided with the best possible support.
That was the message from Justice Minister, David Ford today as he addressed the Autism NI, ‘Young People, Autism and Justice’ Conference in Belfast.
David Ford said: “This event provides a great opportunity for those of us who work within the justice sector to gain a better understanding of what the key challenges are for individuals with autism, and how we can better support them when they come into contact with justice agencies.
“Very often, traditional approaches simply will not work for someone with autism. We need to understand why that is, and to think creatively about what we might do instead. If someone is a victim of crime, for instance, they may need additional help to navigate the criminal justice process or to give their evidence. If they have been accused of a crime, they may need assistance to understand and participate fully in any proceedings.
“As Justice Minister my priority is to ensure access to justice for all. That can be challenging where autism is concerned, because it is a spectrum condition and the needs of one person may be very different from those of another.
“That is why it is so important for us to work closely with those who have a deeper understanding of this multi-faceted condition. My Department has, therefore, been working collaboratively with Autism NI and other organisations with expertise in this field to help achieve better outcomes for children and adults on the autism spectrum.”
The Minister went on to highlight some of the progress that has been made to date to ensure that people with autism are supported by the justice system.
He said: “The development of the cross-departmental autism strategy, which flowed from the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, helped us to develop a better understanding of the justice sector’s role in this respect. A number of actions flowed from this strategy. These included: training for staff across the justice system; improved guidance for criminal justice practitioners; the publication of a new Victim Charter; and, significantly, the provision of registered intermediaries to support witnesses and defendants with communication difficulties.
In fact, since I launched the scheme in May 2013, 56 children, young people and adults with an autism spectrum condition have been supported by a registered intermediary.
“There is now a much better understanding of autism, both in my Department and among the frontline justice agencies, and a strong commitment to providing access to justice to those with autism.
“I am grateful to Autism NI and other organisations for helping us to achieve this, and I commend them for the excellent work they have been doing in this area.”
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