Stammering and the criminal justice system

A set of scales, a gavel, and a woman smiling

Esther Pritchard, a law professional who stammers, and Jennifer Short, a speech and language therapist, tell us how people going through the criminal justice system with speech, language and communication needs can be disadvantaged, and what should be done about it.

Dealing with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCNs) can be a challenge for anyone. But for those in the criminal justice system (CJS) it can make the difference between being able to access support they are entitled to or being unfairly discriminated against.

No research seems to have been conducted on defendants who specifically stammer within the CJS, but approximately '60%' of people in the Youth Justice System and '80%' of adults in a prison have been described as having SLCNs. We also know that '1-2%' of the adult population stammer. It is therefore possible that many defendants are living with the impact of a stammer when pursuing their own defence at trial and experiencing a lack of support from the CJS and laws which support it.

We argue that the law needs reforming and enforcing, to improve the support and assistance available to people who stammer as they navigate around and negotiate with the criminal justice system. 

Research by the Prison Reform Trust has highlighted the significant communication demands of the CJS. Everyone living with a stammer is unique, and there are of course people with whom the following will not resonate, but in our experience, people may recognise some of the following, which could significantly contribute to their vulnerability within the CJS:

  • Feeling 'silenced', finding it challenging to explain themselves as best they can, or elaborate, clarify and ask questions.
  • Fear of speaking/avoiding speaking.
  • Experiencing stigma and stereotyping around issues like intelligence, nervousness and trustworthiness.
  • Shame around speaking leading to reduced confidence, especially in public situations.

We argue that the law needs reforming and enforcing, to improve the support and assistance available to people who stammer as they navigate around and negotiate with the CJS. 

Barriers to justice

There are barriers to justice: including an increased risk of compromised liberty, dignity, and unfair sentencing, for people who stammer. Defendants need to contest the 'legal burden of proof' (i.e. being the 'presumed innocent until proven guilty' principle). Having a stammer can increase the challenges of self-expression, making this a more daunting and overwhelming experience compared to those who do not have SLCNs.

For example:

  • Access to 'Special Measures' — measures put in place to help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses give their best possible evidence in court — is not officially offered to people with SLCNs.
  • There can be a lack of understanding by jurors and/or judges of the fear associated with stammering and the coping strategies such as pauses and word substitutions. These behaviours are at risk of being interpreted erroneously. Coping mechanisms like these have been misunderstood as cues of deception and suspicion.
  • The court can be unaware of the use of word avoidance. Strategies to avoid words, such as saying 'don't know', could make a defendant appear uncooperative, impacting on how the jury perceives their account and character.
  • At worst, the challenge of speaking in such a situation could conceivably cause a defendant to significantly undermine their own plea. Especially as some prosecution barristers use fear to pressure clients to plead guilty to reduce their sentence.

We suggest ways that speech and language therapy can help:

  • In speech and language therapy, disclosing — telling people that you have a stammer — or 'self-advertising' can help de-sensitise the person to it. 'Disclosure' could involve explaining to the court the impact a stammer could have on them and for this to be taken into account.  
  • Improved and urgent access to a specialist speech and language therapist before court appearances is important. Currently, this is not easy in many parts of the UK.
  • Training/workshops for CJS staff and legal professionals. (Editor's note: last year, STAMMA worked with the Courts & Tribunals Judiciary to include guidance on accommodating people who stammer in the Equal Treatment Bench Book).
  • Support for compulsory screening of speech issues, not just for young offenders. Speech issues need to be dealt with on a par with how mental health is viewed and managed in court. Stammering and other SLCNs need to be recognised as something the court needs to accommodate for, by law.

Although we may be talking about small numbers, it is our hope that no person who has a stammer will be disadvantaged by it in court, as a victim, witness or defendant.

Esther Pritchard is a Law with Criminology graduate from the University of Sheffield, who also stammers and is currently working in financial crime in Australia. She has conducted research which discusses how criminal procedures, especially around the availability of special measures for defendants, impacts upon the ability of defendants with a stammer to adequately pursue their own defence in trial.

Jennifer Short, SLT, is a Speech and Language Therapist in the NHS, with 19 years' experience as a specialist in stammering and neurology. She is also a research associate with the Bristol Speech and Language Therapy Research Unit at North Bristol NHS Trust, currently looking into the impact of Covid-19 on people who stammer.

This article has been recreated with permission from The Bar Council website. Read the original article. 

If you have been through the criminal justice system and would like to write about your experiences, email 

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