Measuring Special Measures: Supporting access to justice for autistic people

Project: Research council

Project Details


As many as 1 in 54 people are autistic (CDC, 2020). Autism is a lifelong developmental disability diagnosed based on difficulties in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests (which includes sensory sensitivities). Autistic people may be seven times more likely to become involved with the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as a victim/witness or a suspect/defendant. Our previous research has shown that autistic people are among the most vulnerable entering the CJS, their experiences are largely negative, and police interviewing techniques need to be adapted to support differences in how autistic people remember and report events. Yet there is very little research on autistic people's experiences at court, despite there being several reasons to suspect that courtroom proceedings may be especially challenging for this group (e.g., the adversarial nature of cross-examination, and stress and sensory sensitivities that may be triggered in courtroom environments).

To enable fair access to justice, it is important to understand the impact of standard courtroom proceedings, including cross-examination, on autistic people and their ability to provide their best evidence. It is also important to test how useful and effective 'Special Measures' (SMs) are in supporting autistic people in court. This may include the assistance of a trained professional called a Registered Intermediary to support communication, and the use of video technology to allow evidence to be provided remotely, by pre-recording or both. SMs can be expensive and time consuming, yet we know relatively little about how helpful they are for autistic people.

In our research, we will work with the autistic and legal communities in a series of innovative work packages (WPs) collecting both quantitative and qualitative data. We will identify key issues that autistic individuals experience at court, test the utility of SMs, and co-create training and guidance for legal professionals to enable them to better support autistic people at court. In WP1, we will explore the lived experiences, views and perceptions of autistic people who have been through the court system, via surveys, interviews and focus groups, as well as a 'participative walkthrough' of a simulated trial. Findings will be used to refine our experimental work in WP2 to provide the first empirical test of the impact of cross-examination (with and without SMs) in autistic adults. Our focus will be on the quality, accuracy, relevance, and perceived credibility of autistic adults' accounts, as well as on their overall experiences (including state anxiety and emotional regulation). Informed by findings from WPs 1 and 2, in WP3 we will develop, evaluate, and refine an interactive training package for legal professionals and a resource of autistic people, in collaboration with these user groups.

Many of the adaptations that are effective for autistic people will likely be beneficial for everyone. Findings will have implications for the autistic community (as well as those with other conditions such as ADHD, intellectual disability, and anxiety disorders), legal professionals, the family courts, social workers, and policy makers. Findings will also have implications internationally (e.g., the Witness Intermediary Scheme has been used as a model for similar initiatives in Northern Ireland and Australia, with further interest from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa); and for the family courts, where SMs are incorporated into hearings.

An extensive program of academic and non-academic collaboration and dissemination has been developed to maximise the research impact with a broad range of key users, with input from the National Autistic Society, Autistica, the MoJ, and Judiciary, as well as members of the autistic community, police, solicitors, barristers, judges, intermediaries, and family and criminal court representatives (see letters of support).
Effective start/end date30/04/2329/04/26


  • Economic and Social Research Council

RCUK Research Areas

  • Law and legal studies
  • Psychology


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