Frequently Asked Questions

What is Communicourt?

Communicourt is an independent organisation which provides intermediaries to the family and criminal courts. Communicourt was set up in 2011 after the WIS were unable to provide a service. At this time, there was no regulation for Non-Registered intermediaries and defendants could potentially receive an inferior service to that available to witnesses. Communicourt strives to provide a quality and inclusive service for vulnerable people in the Criminal Justice System across England and Wales.

How many intermediaries work for Communicourt?

At the time of writing there are 30 full time Communicourt intermediaries. All our intermediaries are trained, assessed and supervised regularly by a robust management and supervision structure. They are also fully insured and have enhanced DBS (CRB) clearance. From experience, we have learnt that having full time salaried staff allows our professional intermediaries to make totally objective decisions regarding their recommendations without any conflict of interest.

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 and clear thinking, and ability to relate theory of communication disability to practice.  From here they complete Communicourt’s internal training programme which lasts around 6 -12 months and includes classroom training, observations of other intermediaries, and regular supervision with their manager. To achieve accreditation, they sit several exams, and complete a competency framework.

For ongoing skills development, Communicourt holds 8 training weekends a year.  This includes outside trainers to develop clinical skills (e.g. working with people with mental health conditions, how to understand and interpret psychological reports, Autism and Asperger syndrome), professional skills development (such as how to remain impartial/emotional resilience, simplifying questions without changing the thrust), and role plays for conducting a helpful GRH and assisting with giving evidence.

Our court fees reflect our strong commitment and investment in training and development.

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 defendant might best be helped to participate in the trial, and to give clear and coherent evidence.

The recommendation may be that the defendant would benefit from an intermediary during the trial, and if so, what the role of the intermediary would be.

However, in 24% of the assessments Communicourt carries out an intermediary is NOT recommended.

Why would you not recommend an intermediary?

This may be for several reasons.

  • Often it is because the assessor feels that the defendant’s/respondent’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 defendant
  • Sometimes it is because the defendant’s/respondent’s communication needs are very severe, and even with a highly skilled intermediary it will be impossible to explain complex concepts at a linguistic level he can understand.
  • Sometimes it is because the defendant/respondent requires help with emotional management rather than communication skills per se, and this can be done by a supporter rather than an intermediary

Will a supporter/family member do?

A supporter/family member is often sufficient if the defendant 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.

What do you mean by “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, however, 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 say that they have not understood. Our assessment methods have been developed to directly assess the difficulties that someone may face in the court room.

In criminal trials, an exceptionally high number of cases involving our intermediaries end in a guilty plea on day 1, because the defendant finally understands the strength of the prosecution case and the options open to him/her.

When do you advise having an intermediary for the whole of the trial?

If the assessment indicates that the defendant’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.

In recognition that the person’s skills might fluctuate (particularly in the case of someone with a mental health condition) the intermediary will update the Judge on a regular basis about how that person is coping, the strategies that are assisting, and the level of understanding they have achieved. On occasions the intermediary will report to the judge that an intermediary is no longer required to be present, if his legal team can take over using those same strategies.

Where a defendant with a learning disability has a limited understanding of language, this can be likened in some ways to a person for whom English is not a first language. Although that person may understand some of what is said in English, they will be afforded an interpreter for the whole of the trial to ensure understanding. It would be very unusual for a judge/magistrates to instruct an interpreter only for the time he gives his evidence.

However, 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, e.g.

  • Time and number concepts
  • Plea bargains
  • The impact/consequences of pleading guilty
  • Bad character evidence
  • Decision about whether or not to give evidence

An intermediary should be knowledgeable about a range of communication disabilities and the impacts these might bring to the court environment (Autism, Learning Disability, and Mental Health conditions may present very different challenges). They should also be skilled in using a range of techniques to explain complex concepts, including visual aids, choice/decision boards, and time lines.

What about when the defendant gives evidence?

When (and if) the defendant chooses to give evidence, an intermediary is able to assist counsel in how to phrase questions to maximise the clarity and coherence of the defendant’s evidence.

Where questions are provided in advance, the intermediary can review, and discuss with counsel the best way to proceed so that the questions are within his/her ability to answer but still give the same thrust.  It is vital that the presence of an intermediary does not affect the impact of the cross examination, nor must the intermediary shield the defendant from difficult questions.

Our current figures show that just under half of the defendants Communicourt work with opt to give oral evidence.  A vital role of an intermediary is to assist the defendant to understand his/her options, and the consequences of that decision.

But what about the R V Yahya Rashid (2017) EWCA Crim2?

This is an appeal case regarding a man who was sufficiently able to have passed GCSEs.

The intermediary (not Communicourt Accredited) assessed him to have a number of difficulties affecting communication, and recommended an intermediary throughout the trial.

The trial judge had permitted him to have an intermediary during his evidence, but he contended he needed an intermediary not only when he gave evidence, but also during the whole of the trial.

Without assessing the defendant, it is impossible for Communicourt to indicate what our recommendations would have been, had we been instructed.

Please see our document ‘Decision Making in Respect of Intermediary Appointments for Defendants’ for some more in depth statistics of the use of Defendant Intermediaries in the criminal courts.

Do you work with Litigants in Person?

Communicourt intermediaries are not lawyers. They are trained to be able to explain legal concepts to defendants 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.

Will you accept referrals from people who are privately funded?

Unfortunately not.  This is because there could potentially be a conflict of interest in terms of whether or not we recommend use of an intermediary. (24% of our assessments lead to a recommendation of “no intermediary”).

 

What about the LCJ Practice Direction 2016?

We are aware of this Direction and in particular its emphasis on the scarcity of intermediaries. Communicourt has felt considerable pressure to expand its service due to the increasing number of referrals we are unable to accept (because we are at full capacity).

However, we have taken the decision that we can only do what we can, and if more intermediaries are required than we as a small company can provide, this needs to be addressed by the MoJ.

Does Communicourt do anything else?

Yes – we give a considerable amount of time and expenditure into 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.