We have just released early bird tickets for Communicourt’s very first external conference: Access to Justice: The future of inclusion & special measures in the courts, held in partnership with UK law reform and human rights charity, JUSTICE. The half-day conference will take place on Friday 3 November in Leeds and a livestream is available for those who can’t make it in person.
We wanted to talk to you about why we think this event is necessary, and what we hope to achieve. Striving for ever-better access to justice for people with communication differences and difficulties is what drives Communicourt as an organisation. However, intermediaries are only one piece of the puzzle of achieving equal participation for all.
We recognise the limitations of our role within a much wider, complex system. We also recognise the importance of inter-disciplinary working to facilitate more effective participation, for court users with very diverse needs. In addition, there are many vulnerabilities which require accommodations and adjustments within the court process but may fall outside the purview of intermediary assistance.
We know legal professionals find themselves under increasing pressure in the court system and are always striving to do all they can for their clients. We invited JUSTICE to partner on this conference because we admire their considerable expertise and tireless work fighting for UK legal reform. They are absolutely the right partner for this event, and we are immensely proud and excited to be working with them.
Improving access without intermediaries
There are many reasons why an intermediary may not be allocated to assist a court user with a communication difference, communication difficulty or vulnerability. This might be due to resources, or time constraints. In these cases, counsel must juggle the considerable demands of representing their client, with monitoring and supporting their participation as far as possible.
Sharing the latest best practice with legal professionals is therefore (in our view) essential to improving access to justice in cases where intermediaries are not appointed. We believe that conferences like this present an excellent opportunity for sharing knowledge, which could help more court users who do not have access to an intermediary to participate more effectively in legal proceedings.
We want to spark conversation around inclusion, adaptations, adjustments and special measures, to keep these ‘tools’ firmly at the top of the agenda, whenever the court works with individuals who have communication needs or other vulnerabilities.
Nurturing inter-disciplinary understanding, collaboration and knowledge sharing is an essential part of making justice more accessible. From policy makers and judges, to academics, solicitors and intermediaries – the more communication between and awareness of intersecting roles, scopes, tools and best practice, the more effectively we can all accommodate communication needs and other vulnerabilities within the justice system.
Among professionals working in the courtroom, there are many competing demands and priorities. For example, a judge is likely to prioritise overall case and time management more highly than an intermediary, who will prioritise adaptations which will assist their service user to participate as effectively as possible (such as breaks for further explanation and to support attention).
By the same token, a barrister may take a ‘bigger picture’ approach when considering the best approach to their client’s evidence, keeping the outcome of the case firmly in mind. They may, for example, feel strongly that live-link will reduce the impact of their client’s evidence upon a jury. As an impartial professional, an intermediary will focus on measures which will best enable their service user to understand questions put to them and to express themselves as effectively as possible. This may mean recommending remote participation (to better manage the impact of issues like anxiety, PTSD flashbacks, sensory sensitivities and other factors upon their communication).
The above examples of differing priorities highlight the importance of multi-disciplinary working, when tackling access to justice. Navigating these issues in order to collaboratively ensure effective participation depends on court professionals understanding the boundaries and demands of each other’s roles. Fostering greater communication across professions is a crucial step towards getting those delicate balances right.
Although not a training event, the Access to Justice conference seeks to bring together diverse professionals, allowing opportunities for interdisciplinary connection and learning.
Service user voices
We strive to facilitate equal access to justice for service users in courtrooms across England and Wales. It is their voices and experiences which continue to drive our work. Below you can read some of our service user courtroom experiences first-hand, which highlight why we do what we do, why access to justice matters, and why we hope to bring together a wide range of speakers and guests from across the justice system at the Access to Justice Conference, so we can each work more effectively, together, to achieve equal participation for all:
“I don’t understand most of what they’re saying. I speak to [my solicitor]. When she asked me something, I said, ‘Don’t know, I’m going to put my trust in you, and you make the decision’. And with ADHD it’s really hard to make decisions. If you ask me, ‘Do you want tea or coffee?’, I’m blown”.
“Being closed in [the dock], I couldn’t hear what was being said and, if I do, what’s being said, it takes me a while to [hand gesture] absorb and understand what people are saying, maybe sometimes I won’t and the difficulty with that, sometimes I just say ‘yes’. And when you’ve got all those people watching you…”
“Yeah, that’s the problem as well because I have this thing [PTSD] sometimes when they’re talking, but, you know, my understanding and my mind goes somewhere else”.
Prevalence of communication difficulties & differences in the justice system
Although not an exhaustive list of diagnoses, differences and difficulties which may impact an individual’s ability to communication and participate effectively in legal proceedings, these statistics offer a glimpse into the prevalence of very varied communication needs at court (see references below).
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
- 26% of adult prisoners in Britain met the criteria for some form of ADHD (Young et al, 2015)
- 96% of offenders with ADHD have co-occurring problems involving issues such as mood, anxiety, and conduct (Young and Cocallis, 2021)
- 30% of young offenders have some form of ADHD, compared to 3-4% percent in the general population (Young et al, 2015 and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2018)
- 5-7% of people referred to liaison and diversion services by the courts are autistic (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021)
- 19% of people in UK prisons have autistic indicators (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021)
- 47% of adult men and 70% of male youths in UK prisons reported sustaining a head injury (Pitman et al, 2013)
Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)
- Up to 60% of young people who commit crimes have DLD (Winstanley et al, 2020)
- Young people with DLD are twice as likely to reoffend than those who do not have the condition (Winstanley et al, 2020)
- 5-10% of people who offend have a learning disability (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)
- 25% of young people who offend have a very low IQ, below 70 (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)
Mental health difficulties
- 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)
- 21% of women in prison have PTSD (Facer-Irwin et al., 2014)
- During family law proceedings, the mental health of women with domestic abuse-related PTSD often deteriorates (Douglas, 2017)
- 49% of people in prison reported being at risk of anxiety or depression (Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, 2017)
- There is a higher prevalence of bipolar disorder in prison populations compared to the general population (Fovet et al, 2015)
Attend the Access to Justice Conference
We hope this article offers some insight into our motivations and goals for our very first external conference. To learn more about the conference and to book early bird tickets (available for a limited time only), please visit the Communicourt website. For further information, please contact email@example.com.
Criminal Justice Joint Inspection (2021) Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system: A review of evidence, Accessed [online]: September 2022
Douglas H. (2017). Domestic and Family Violence, Mental Health and Well-Being, and Legal Engagement. Psychiatry, psychology, and law : an interdisciplinary journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 25(3), 341–356.
Facer-Irwin E, Blackwood NJ, Bird A, Dickson H, McGlade D, Alves-Costa F, et al. (2019) PTSD in prison settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of comorbid mental disorders and problematic behaviours.
Fovet, T., Geoffroy, P.A., Vaiva, Adins, C., Thomas, P., Amad, A. (2015) Individuals With Bipolar Disorder and Their Relationship With the Criminal Justice System: A Critical Review, Psychiatric Services: Volume 66, Issue 4.
Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, NHS England and Public Health England, (2017) Mental health in prisons HC 42 SESSION 2017–2019. London: National Audit Office.
Johnson, R.D. et al. (2021). Health vulnerabilities of parents in care proceedings in Wales. London: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Guidance: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis and management. 2018.
Pitman, I. , Haddlesey, C. and Fortescue, D. (2013), “The prevalence of traumatic brain injury among adult male offenders in the UK”, Disabilities Trust Website.
Prison Reform Trust (2017) Mental health, autism and learning disabilities in the criminal courts, Prison Reform Trust & Rethink Mental Illness
Winstanley, M., Webb, R. T., Conti-Ramsden, G. (2020) Developmental language disorders and risk of recidivism among young offenders. The Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 62: 396-403.
Young S, Cocallis K. ADHD and offending. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2021 Jul;128(7):1009-1019.
Young S, Moss D, Sedgwick O, Fridman M, Hodgkins P. A meta-analysis of the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in incarcerated populations. Psychol Med. 2015 Jan;45(2):247-58.