Access to Justice: Legal Professionals’ Experience and Knowledge of Autism in Family Courts in England.
Access to justice is a key issue for many sectors of society, but can be particularly problematic for autistic individuals. This is because many aspects of the condition (e.g., inability to decode non-verbal cues, difficulties understanding non-literal language and subtext) render autistic people vulnerable to being taken advantage of in negotiation or dispute settings. In addition, a departure from daily routine, and lack of control of the situation can cause autistic individuals a great deal of distress. The family court and the wider family justice system (i.e., the lawyers, judges and others responsible for assisting families and resolving legal disputes within families) makes a particularly strong example of these issues because interpersonal relationships are often the foundation of the dispute, while the processes involved have strict (but socially unusual) rules about behaviour, language, and the roles of the individuals within the system.
Research highlights high levels of dissatisfaction amongst autistic people and their families who have experienced the criminal justice process, and a number of service providers offer autism-specific guidance on navigating the criminal justice system. However, criminal court processes are quite different from other areas of the justice system, making it questionable the extent to which lessons learnt from that area are directly translatable to other contexts such as family law. To address this, the present study aimed to examine the current autism knowledge and experiences of legal professionals in the English family justice system.
Questionnaires (online and paper versions) were distributed to legal professionals across England, asking about 1) their professional background and experience working with autistic individuals, 2) knowledge of autism (diagnostic criteria of autism, descriptive characteristics and co-occurring behaviours) and 3) their perceived self-efficacy (their confidence in their ability to identify and work with autistic clients). A small follow-up study was conducted with 10 family justice professionals, using qualitative interviews to explore their experiences of cases involving autistic litigants.
197 legal professionals (barristers, solicitors, judges) from across the UK completed all parts of the survey. 58% of respondents reported that they had knowingly worked with autistic individuals, yet 91% indicated that they had never received training regarding the condition. Scores on the autism knowledge questionnaire were high: with an average score of 84% correct, and were slightly higher for the 44% of respondents who had a personal connection with autism. Despite the high levels of knowledge, legal professionals reported low levels of confidence in their ability to support autistic individuals in their practice. Interview data revealed a range of concerns and best practice suggestions.
Our findings suggest the need for targeted training materials to help legal professionals work more effectively with their autistic clients. Specifically, the current study highlights the discrepancy between low practical confidence and high theoretical knowledge, a finding that can be used to inform the creation of best-practice resources to help bridge that gap.
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