Where do Communicourt intermediaries work?
Our intermediaries provide a service across England and Wales. We work in Crown, Magistrate, and Youth Courts, and a substantial and growing number of our referrals are from the Family Courts.
We also receive referrals for personal injury cases, police suspect interviews, child witnesses (family courts), civil proceedings and tribunals.
Do your intermediaries work for Communicourt full time?
Yes, we have found through experience that the only way to run an efficient service is to have all our intermediaries salaried. So many trials crack, adjourn, or overrun, and we need to know we have someone available.
This also means that our intermediaries are under no pressure to make specific recommendations to the courts and have time and support to be practitioners which is what they do best. The intermediaries are organised into management teams for regular supervision and skills development.
What qualifications and training do Communicourt intermediaries have?
Our intermediaries have a relevant degree (usually Speech and Language Therapy or Psychology) and are recruited for their specialist skills in swift rapport building, clear thinking, and ability to relate theory of communication disability to practice.
Initial training lasts around six to twelve months. This includes classroom training, observations of other intermediaries, and regular supervision with their manager.
To achieve accreditation, they sit three exams, and complete a competency framework.
For ongoing skills development, Communicourt holds eight training weekends a year. This includes inviting outside trainers to develop clinical skills.
Why won’t Communicourt take a court booking until after the assessment and report are prepared?
The assessment is to give an opinion on how the vulnerable person might best be helped to participate in the proceedings, and to give clear and coherent evidence.
The recommendation may be that the vulnerable person would benefit from an intermediary during the trial/hearing, and if so, what the role of the intermediary would be. However, for example in the criminal court, in 24% of the assessments we carry out, we do not recommend an intermediary.
Why would you not recommend an intermediary?
This may be for several reasons:
- The assessor may feel that the vulnerable person’s communication is adequate and can be managed within the court, provided his/her legal team are aware of his difficulties. The report may refer to the Advocates Gateway toolkits and make a couple of other recommendations specific to the vulnerable person.
- The vulnerable person’s communication needs may be very severe, and even with a highly skilled intermediary it will be impossible to explain complex concepts at a linguistic level they can understand.
- The intermediary, during assessment, was unable to establish effective strategies that will assist communication and ensure effective participation.
- The vulnerable person requires help with emotional management rather than communication skills, and this can be done by a supporter rather than an intermediary
Will a supporter/advocate/family member do?
A supporter/advocate/family member is often sufficient if the vulnerable person needs general support and reassurance. However, it may of course be difficult for such a person to remain impartial, and they may not have knowledge about how courts work, legal concepts, and confidence to intervene in the complex process of cross examination.
Support workers and advocates are not trained communication specialists.
What is a ‘hidden disability’?
Communication difficulties may affect receptive or expressive language, or both.
Difficulties with expressive language/speech are often easy to spot – the person may not have a wide enough vocabulary to express themselves clearly, or may have difficulties in forming sentences and narratives. In addition, they may have difficulties pronouncing words, or may be dysfluent (stammer).
Receptive difficulties are often hidden. People with a learning disability, for example, may not know/understand the meaning of many words which we consider to be commonly used. A limited working memory capacity will mean that they can only retain and process information presented in short chunks at a time. They may misunderstand more complex sentence types, without realising they have misunderstood.
These difficulties often go unnoticed until formal assessment. People with communication difficulties will often not realise they have misunderstood or will not say that they have not understood.
When might you advise having an intermediary for the whole of the trial?
If the assessment indicates the vulnerable person’s receptive language is at a level where he will not be able to understand conferences/what is going on in court without the help of an intermediary, the recommendations are likely to be that s/he has an intermediary for the prosecution case and until at least after s/he has given his evidence.
Communicourt appreciates the financial impact, but the assessor’s views about what that person will or will not be able to understand cannot change in the light of budgetary constraints. It is for the judge/magistrates to decide what action to take in the light of that specialist opinion.
There are further important differences when working with someone with a learning disability/cognitive deficits. This will not only be a matter of simplifying the language used, but also breaking down and explaining complex concepts, eg:
- Time and number concepts
- Plea bargains
- The impact/consequences of pleading guilty
- Bad character evidence
- Decision about whether to give evidence
An intermediary should be knowledgeable about a range of communication disabilities and how these may impact in the court environment. They should also be skilled in using a range of techniques to explain complex concepts, including visual aids, choice/decision boards, and timelines.
What about when the vulnerable person gives evidence?
When (and if) the vulnerable person chooses to give evidence, an intermediary is able to assist counsel in how to phrase questions to maximise the clarity and coherence of the vulnerable person’s evidence.
It is vital that the presence of an intermediary does not affect the impact of the cross examination, nor must the intermediary shield the vulnerable person from difficult questions.
Our experience shows that just under half of the vulnerable people we work with opt to give oral evidence. A vital role of an intermediary is to assist the vulnerable person to understand their options, and the consequences of that decision.
Why won’t you work with Litigants in Person (LIPs)?
Communicourt intermediaries are not lawyers. They are trained to be able to explain legal concepts to vulnerable people, but they are unable to give legal advice. We have found that when working with LIPs our position has been compromised by our role being unclear.
Does Communicourt do anything else?
Yes – we give a considerable amount of time to training other practitioners about how to communicate more effectively with people with communication disorders. This includes regular input to the Judicial College, Magistrates and Tribunal Members, as well as one-off sessions for groups of lawyers across England.