What happens when a person with an intellectual disability ‘comes before the Guards’? – Mary de Paor


‘Gardaí have no specialised training in working with or identifying offenders with learning disability. Another area of concern is the point of contact between the offender with a learning disability and the Gardaí.’ (Murphy et al, 2000)

In Garda custody

The only document Frontline has found concerning people with intellectual disability and the Gardaí is an article on ‘legal safeguards for the mentally handicapped’, provided by Inspector Owen O’Donnell (of the Garda College, Templemore) for the DSI Magazine in 1995. The article describes the Garda Custody Regulations, as laid down in the Criminal Justice Act 1984 (Treatment of Persons in Custody in Garda Síochána Stations) Regulations 1987. These cover the appointment in each garda station of a ‘member in charge’ who is responsible for the application of the regulations; the custody record; the information which must be given to the person in custody; access to a solicitor; and the procedures of questioning, charging, taking of fingerprints, etc. The Custody Regulations are prefaced with the requirement that ‘in carrying out their functions, Gardaí shall act with due respect for the personal rights of persons in custody and their dignity as human persons, and shall have regard for the special needs of any of them who may be under a physical or mental disability’. Inspector O’Donnell’s article also referred to the Code of Professional and Ethical Standards which is issued to each individual member of An Garda Síochána.

Inspector O’Donnell stated that where the arrested person has an intellectual disability, his/her parent or guardian (or, if necessary, another responsible adult, other than a member of the Force) would be requested to attend at the station without delay. Only in exceptional circumstances would a person with ID be questioned or asked to make a written statement without a parent or guardian being present. If the person is charged with an offence, a copy of the detailed charge sheet should be given to him and to his parent/guardian. Fingerprints or other samples may not be taken without the written consent of the person charged and that of the appropriate adult.

Inspector O’Donnell acknowledged that all persons in Garda custody can feel vulnerable, and that the experience would likely be more traumatic for a person with a disability. However, he assured DSI readers that they could ‘be reassured that within our system of justice the rights of the mentally handicapped are protected, and Gardaí are sensitive to their special needs.’

The Mental Health Act 2001

Part II, Section 12 of the Mental Health Act 2001 defines the circumstances under which members of An Garda Siochana may take a person with a ‘mental disorder’ into custody:

‘12.-(1) Where a member of the Garda Síochána has reasonable grounds for believing that a person is suffering from a mental disorder and that because of the mental disorder there is a serious likelihood of the person causing immediate and serious harm to himself or herself or to other persons, the member may either alone or with any other members of the Garda Síochána-(a) take the person into custody, and b) enter if need be by force any dwelling or other premises or any place if he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that the person is to be found there.’

‘Mental disorder’ is defined under the Act as ‘mental illness, severe dementia or significant intellectual disability’—which, in turn, defined as ‘a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind of a person which includes significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning and abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct on the part of the person.’


Individuals with a moderate to severe disability may seem unlikely to ‘fall foul of the law’. But there is clear evidence that a significant number of persons with ‘milder’ levels of intellectual disability do come before the Gardaí, and that they are charged with an offence, eventually leading to their imprisonment (Murphy et al. 2000). There is surely a need for An Garda Síochána to develop a set of guidelines for dealing appropriately in their encounters with persons with intellectual disability—either as suspects/ perpetrators of a crime or as victims. This may range from an individual being reported as ‘acting suspiciously’ or exhibiting socially inappropriate behaviours, to a person charged with a serious crime whose apparent intellectual disability requires appropriate consideration while he/she is in garda custody.

Informally, of course, many members of An Garda Síochána have experience of meeting and knowing individuals with intellectual disability, through their own personal experience, a training placement of several weeks with a learning disability service, or having taken part in national or international Special Olympics Torch Runs.

It is important that local disability services—and support groups too—establish and develop effective links with their local guards. Intellectual disability centres can—and do—invite members of the Force to events in their service, so that they and the clients of the service become familiar faces to each other. The Community Garda can provide excellent liaison between the local station and the people of the area. Parents and Friends groups can invite members of the Gardaí to their meetings as speakers, but perhaps even more importantly as members of the audience, to hear the concerns of individuals with disability and their families. (Aspire has done this, in an effort to raise awareness of Asperger Syndrome.) And namhi is seeking to set up disability awareness talks and/or training days with the gardaí.

So, while we hope that An Garda Síochána will soon have guidelines and protocols in place, in the short term the Irish learning disability community continues to do all it can to improve the level of understanding on both sides of the law enforcement equation.