Communication Difficulties in the Justice System

Communication Difficulties in the Justice System

People with communication difficulties are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System. Such people often struggle to express themselves or to understand what is said to them which can result in non-compliance with rules, conditions or restrictions, resulting in poorer outcomes. This kind of experience can also be very frustrating and stressful, and especially in people who may have poorer emotional management, can result in challenging behaviour.

Making adjustments so that you can communicate more effectively and minimising the effects of such difficulties therefore has numerous benefits for the person with the communication problems and for those who work with them. Too often strategies around challenging behaviour in the Criminal Justice System focuses too strongly on how to respond, and too little on preventative measures to stop them happening in the first place.

According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, more than 60% of the young offenders in Young Offender Institutions today lack the communication skills to take part in education, offending behaviour programmes, and ‘thinking skills’ courses. Whilst these statistics refer to young offenders, some of these will grow up to become adult offenders, especially if their needs are not met at this point in the criminal justice process. 

For these reasons is it important that people working across the Criminal Justice System including Police, Probation and Prison Staff, Criminal Justice Social Workers and Offender Managers. Continuing from last week’s post, a key function of the Appropriate Adult role in Police Custody is to ensure effective communication takes place. 

Having a communication difficulty can mean finding it very difficult to express yourself, not being able to understand what is said to you or that you read. It feels the same as it does when you are in a country where you do not speak or read the language well. You might struggle to

  • tell someone about something important
  • find the words you need to say something
  • speak without the words coming out jumbled up or your sentences getting muddled or stuck
  • understand what is said to you
  • retain information long enough to process it
  • join in conversations
  • read written information
  • write down your thoughts

Other people might often

  • interrupt or jump in, saying words for you
  • not be able to understand what you are saying
  • ignore what you are trying to say, as they feel embarrassed and move away
  • not understand what is said to you

In order for communication to be appropriate and effective a number of factors must all align at the same time. The following section explores three factors that can contribute to verbal communication difficulties.


Expressive Language Difficulties 

Some people will have difficulty or problems saying what they mean and these are referred to as ‘Expressive Language Difficulties’.


Indications of and Expressive Language Difficulty

Things that may help you to identify people experiencing ‘Expressive Language Difficulties’ include:

  • What they say may lack fluency
  • They may often struggle to recall the words to say
  • They may struggle to use the correct sounds on complicated words
  • They may have difficulty explaining things and connecting words and ideas
  • They may have limited vocabulary and use lots of ‘empty words’ such as ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, ‘what’s-its-name’ and ‘thing-a-me-bob’
  • They may find it hard to express emotions leading to anger and frustration
  • They may avoid activities requiring verbal communication

We all experience these problems from time to time and there is no single thing to look out for, what you are looking for is ‘clusters’ of signs that might indicate a problem.

Implications of Expressive Language Difficulties in the Criminal Justice System

People may struggle to find the words to describe what they want to say, leading to long pauses that are misinterpreted as taking time to make up a plausible story. They may not have the vocabulary or language skills to say what they want, leading to misunderstanding and the listener taking a different meaning from what is intended. It could make it appear like they are trying to ‘fill’ gaps in their story.

Having expressive language difficulties and a limited vocabulary can be incredibly tiring and can result in an unwillingness to engage, short or no responses, or challenging behaviour.


Increasing The Effectiveness Of Communication With People With Expressive Language Difficulties

Strategies that can reduce the problems that people with Expressive Language Difficulties experience include:

  • Give them plenty of time and listen carefully
  • Be open to both verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Do not pretend to understand – suggest that they slow down or provide other ways to help you understand
  • Repeat back what you think that they said to enable the person to change what you did not understand (but be careful to make sure that they understand you are seeking clarification and accuracy and do not make them think that you wanted a different answer – many people with learning disabilities and similar conditions are often overly acquiescent and eager to please)


Receptive Communication Difficulties

Some people will have difficulties or problems understanding what is said to them, and these are referred to as ‘Receptive Language Difficulties’. An important concept that can affect receptive communication ability is ‘working memory’. Working memory is the part of short-term memory concerned with holding and processing information. A common problem that people with learning disabilities and related condition often have, is that they have a poor working memory and their working memory gets easily overloaded. If you are giving a list of instructions or directions, the point at which you cannot hols all the information in your mind at once is the point at which your working memory gets overloaded.


Indications of a Receptive Language Difficulty

Things that may help you to identify people experiencing ‘Receptive Language Difficulties’ include:

  • They may have difficulty following long or complicated sentences, or understanding unfamiliar words
  • They may struggle collaborating in groups
  • They may have difficulty with implied meanings, idioms and sarcasm
  • They may have poor memory skills due to a poor ‘working memory’
  • They appear polite through use of lots of brief and practiced phrases, but do not wait for an answer
  • They may talk about their own interests a lot, but have difficulty understanding others and responding
  • They may struggle to understand spoken instructions
  • They may have poor concentration
  • They may repeat or ‘parrot’ words or phrases back to person who has spoken to them without understanding the meaning


Implications of Receptive Language Difficulties in the Criminal Justice System

People with receptive language difficulties may struggle understanding frequently used words or jargon such as ‘allegation’, ‘remorse’ or ‘contrition’. They may misunderstand what is said to them, and respond inappropriately or view what is said to them more negatively or positively than they should. They may not understand the language, grammar or sentence structure used and may feel unable to answer questions and consequently refuse to do so, appearing uncompliant. Working memory problems may mean that they cannot remember more than the beginning or end of a sentence, or find it hard to hold enough information to process what is said to them. Working memory problems can also mean that they struggle with chronology and sequencing events, putting them in the wrong order in which they happened. Having difficulties in understanding conversations can be exhausting and can lead to complete disengagement, ‘acting out’ or ‘acting up’, or rude, inappropriate or angry responses.


Increasing The Effectiveness Of Communication With People With Receptive Language Difficulties

Strategies that can reduce the problems that people with Receptive Language Difficulties experience include:

  • Try to reduce background noise and distractions as much as possible
  • Ensure that you speak slowly and clearly
  • Give instructions from near to them, rather than shouting, and ask them to repeat the instructions back and give prompts
  • Use visual support such as gestures, demonstrations and written information where possible and appropriate 
  • Allow the person time to process and make sense of information given to them
  • Avoid the use of jargon, colloquialisms, sayings and idioms

Regardless of whether you think a person has a communication difficulty, avoid saying to them “Do you understand?”, as people nearly always say “Yes” even when they don’t.

Really good practice is to say

“I don’t think that I explained that very well, what do you think that I meant by that”

This takes the responsibility of them as a poor listener and puts the responsibility on you as a poor explainer.

However, and most importantly – always ask the person what helps them.


Pragmatic Communication Difficulties

Pragmatic communication, otherwise known as the ‘norms and rules’ of social communication, is the third factor to consider. Pragmatics is perhaps the most complex section and it incorporates

  • the tone of voice – so how we say things
  • the intonation patterns that we use
  • our facial expressions
  • and our body language.

Pragmatic language difficulties refer to problems with understanding and interpreting these social norms and rules.
People with autism often struggle to understand the pragmatics of communication. Sometimes people deliberately create a mismatch between what they say and the way they say it in order to convey sarcasm. This can be very confusing for some people with autism, whilst others may not even register that there is a mismatch and think the person is being serious.


The Impact of Pragmatic Language Difficulties

People who experience pragmatic language difficulties may find it hard to read non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, resulting in them behaving inappropriately or not understanding other people’s emotions. They may not display appropriate facial expressions themselves, and appear uncaring, unempathic or lacking in contrition. They may continue to talk when inappropriate to do so or they may not recognise a request and appear rude or defiant.

Eye contact is an aspect of the social and cultural norms of communication in the UK. People who are not comfortable making and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact during communication can be perceived as disrespectful or untruthful. They may not appreciate social norms and may struggle to control their emotions, laughing at inappropriate times. 

Having pragmatic language difficulties can be incredibly tiring, and can lead to refusing to engage, acting inappropriately or giving answers that make no sense.


Practical Tips

The following practical tips and techniques, taken from 'Positive Practice - Positve Outcomes' should help you establish more effective communication with offenders with Learning Disabilities and / or Learning Difficulties:

  • Use the person’s name at the start of each sentence.
  • Explain to the person why they are in a new situation, what they should expect and when this will happen.
  • Keep this information, simple, concrete and immediate.
  • Explain each part of a process as it happens not all at once at the beginning.
  • Avoid jargon- use clear, simple, and focused language.
  • Do not rush any discussion and try to accept any responses and discuss any concerns the person raises
  • Use visual aids, for example, photos, calendar for dates.
  • Use concrete terms rather than abstract, for example, “At breakfast time” rather than “early on”.
  • Break information into small chunks and give the person time to understand the information.
  • Prepare the person for each stage of the communication, for example, “David, I will now ask you some questions” or “David, I will now explain what we are going to do.”
  • Be patient and allow the person to process the information.
  • Avoid double negative statements and vague questions, for example, “You were not in the shop, were you?”.
  • Be careful about repeating questions as this may suggest that the person did not give the right answer the first time round.
  • If contradictory information is given, do not assume that the person is being manipulative, this may indicate that they don’t understand or can’t remember.



About Hugh Asher


Hugh is an author, practitioner, trainer, researcher and consultant.

He keeps rare breed sheep and cows.

He also shares his house with the world’s largest puppy, called Charlie.

Although he was told from a young age that “Life isn’t fair” he has refused
to give up on his goal to make other people’s lives as happy as he can.

His vision for a better world involves giving people the skills and
confidence to make a positive change to other people’s lives.

To learn more about Hugh and the mission of Soma, click here.​

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