What is Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder and how can we support it?

We work with a range of people, many of whom have a hidden disability. Communication difficulties are not immediately visible, Frankie talks about one of these called Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder.

Communication difficulties come in many shapes and sizes, affecting anything from physical speech, storytelling skills, reading to attention. One such difficulty, which you may not be aware of is, Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder (S(P)CD). This disorder is particularly hidden as it often is confused with autism or people present as having a behavioural disorder. People with S(P)CD often use masking behaviours which hides this impairment further.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at S(P)CD to reveal how this hidden disability may affect an individual in a court setting.

What is Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder?

Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder is recognised in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 (2013) (DSM5) as a neurological developmental disorder. S(P)CD is characterised by difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication in a social situation.

At this point it is easy to assume that S(P)CD is the same as autism spectrum conditions (ASC), however, people with S(P)CD do not meet the ASC diagnoses. For example, they do not present as having restricted interests, display repetitive behaviours or document sensory abnormalities.

Social communication is simply communication in social situations, which is a two-way interaction. Two key ingredients which go into social communication are semantics and pragmatics:

  • Semantics are the actual message (transmitted through words and actions)
  • Pragmatics are the context of the message (the unspoken rules we all use when communicating to add meaning)

Here is an example to explore the difference between semantics and pragmatics. The following scenarios use different pragmatics.

  1. Mrs Smith goes out for a meal, after she has paid, she leaves a tip of £1.10. Her server holds the restaurant door open, smiles, makes eye contact and said, “Thank you, see you soon”.
  2. Mrs Smith goes out for a meal, after she has paid, she leaves a tip of £1.10. Her server stays by the till, did not look at her and said, “Thanks, bye”.

Have a watch of this video to see this in action:

The message in these scenarios have broadly the same spoken message, however, the meaning of that message is altered due to the pragmatics: i.e eye contact, facial expression, body language and choice of words.

Fun Fact!: Minions are a brilliant example of communication using only pragmatics. They are able to communicate without using a human language… but we can all tell what they are saying without having to understand the semantics! AMAZING!

Pragmatics

Pragmatics can be both verbal and non-verbal, the following lists highlight some pragmatic skills, separated into verbal and non-verbal skills.

Non-verbal pragmatics include:

  • Understanding when and when NOT to talk
  • Taking turns in conversation
  • Sticking to or diverging from the topic appropriately
  • Use of eye contact
  • Understanding and using facial expressions
  • Understanding and using body language
  • Understanding and using gestures appropriately e.g., pointing, nodding or indicating for someone to wait.

Verbal pragmatics include:

  • Adjusting formality of language to suit different situations
  • Greeting and returning greetings
  • Providing relevant information
  • Providing the right amount of information
  • The ability to make an inference from non-literal language or figurative language
  • Identifying implied meaning (reading between the lines)
  • Understanding how and when to ask a question and seek clarification
  • Understanding how and when to request something
  • Understanding how to refuse an offer

Here is a video from YouTube channel ‘Speech and Language Therapy’ which breaks social communication skills into slightly different areas, but presents the skills visually:

People with S(P)CD will have difficulties using and recognising pragmatics, leading to miscommunication or complete breakdown of communication in a social setting. S(P)CD does not affect IQ and people with this condition will be likely to understand and use a range of vocabulary in isolation.

Masking

“What is masking?” I hear you say…

Social masking is a term used within the ASC community; it refers to behaviours which a person displays to reduce how obvious their differences in social communication are. Masking behaviours are used for a variety of reasons, possibly to fit into a social environment, to make friends, to avoid bullying or even to be promoted at work.

Masking behaviours are not always intentional. They can become instinct when a person with a social impairment is in a social environment. Additionally, some people who use social masking report that performing these behaviours can be exhausting, requiring constant monitoring of the environment and considerable concentration. This phenomenon is discussed at length at the following website, https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/costs-camouflaging-autism/ , one poignant quote from this article is:

                “All of these strategies call for considerable effort. Exhaustion was a near-universal response in the 2017 British survey: The adults interviewed described feeling utterly drained — mentally, physically and emotionally.”

Social masking is a normal behaviour most of us employ to some extent in social situations when we feel a little out of our comfort zone. Have you ever laughed along with a joke you don’t get? Engaged in a conversation about something you know little about and so agreed with what others have said? Gone to a wedding and danced when you haven’t wanted to? Or worse still, have you gone along with a hug because someone you have just met is, “very huggy”?

If you said yes to any of these you have socially masked, though you probably weren’t aware that that was what you were doing and it was not for any extended period of time.

With the examples I just gave you in mind, try to imagine how uncomfortable you felt in these situations, yet you still felt the need to do them so that you could ‘fit in’. For a person who is socially masking throughout all social interactions, they feel that discomfort continually which decreases their ability to engage and process interactions.

What do masking behaviours look like?

In truth, masking behaviours often look like “typical” social communication. The intention of these behaviours is to make social difference less noticeable, but they are behaviours a person with a social difficulty would not naturally do.

Some common masking behaviours include:

  • Using complex vocabulary, this deflects away from not understanding what has been said in a conversation.
  • Practicing behaviour before entering a situation.
  • Forcing eye contact; find out more from this link https://autisticempath.com/6-ways-to-fake-eye-contact/ .
  • Scripting conversations, e.g, thinking about responses to possible questions.
  • Rehearsing and using a bank of phrases, e.g “I know exactly what you mean”.
  • Minimising personal interests in order to ‘fit in’ with the crowd.
  • Finding out about topics others might enjoy talking about and researching beforehand.

Social communication difficulties at court

The intermediary’s role

How do intermediaries identify a social communication difficulty, when these difficulties are often masked?

Intermediary reports often identify and describe a range of pragmatic and social communication difficulties.

For example, we assess an individual’s ability to understand common and uncommon figurative phrases such as “bear with me”. A person’s response will help us to identify if they have difficulty interpreting if there is a ‘deeper meaning’ to what has actually been said. The example “bear with me” could be interpreted literally or not understood at all. However, as it is a common phrase, the individual may have learned when it is used to demonstrate situational meaning or even be able to use it themselves as part of a learned behaviour.

None of these responses though, would indicate that the person has a true understanding of the meaning in context as they have not ‘read’ the pragmatics in combination with the semantics.

Another example of how intermediaries can comment on pragmatic skills regardless of masking behaviours is through informal discussion and observation. A person with social pragmatic impairment will likely not provide an appropriate level of relevant information independently, they may shift topics or interrupt when it is not their ‘turn’ in the conversation.

Other questions an intermediary may ask themselves is, “Does the person initiate an interaction?”, furthermore, “Can the person initiate an interaction?”. For example, requesting a break, indicate when they have not understood without being asked, or ask questions in return during a conversation.

How might someone present in court who has S(P)CD?

I will now take another look at the list from earlier and give an example of how a person with S(P)CD might present if they lack social pragmatic communication skills.

Non-verbal pragmatic breakdowns:

  • Understanding when and when NOT to talk…

…The respondent or defendant may not respond to statement-style questions or may speak (seemingly inappropriately) out of turn during conferences, proceedings or when advocate’s ask questions during their evidence, possibly appearing rude for speaking out or defiant for not.

  • Taking turns in conversation…

… The respondent or defendant might interrupt a speaker when giving evidence or perhaps not reply if a direct question has not been asked, they could appear reluctant to engage.

  • Sticking to or diverging from the topic appropriately…

… Whilst giving evidence a person may fixate on a topic and find it difficult to answer a question. In conference this can make gaining instructions very difficult and conferences can become very lengthy.

  • Use of eye contact…

… If an individual is not giving appropriate eye contact during legal proceedings, they may appear unwilling to engage.

  • Understanding and using facial expressions…

… A respondent in a family matter may be watching a social worker give evidence, see the social worker smile at professionals out of courtesy. The respondent may misinterpret the meaning of the social worker’s expression.

  • Understanding and using body language…

… An individual in court proceedings may stand with their head resting on their hand they may appear to be disinterested when in fact they do not understand how this action may be read by others seeing them.

Verbal pragmatic breakdowns:

  • Adjusting formality of language to suit different situations…

… A defendant may say “Alright mate, will do” when responding to an instruction from a judge.

  • Greeting and returning greetings…

… An individual may be greeted by the judge personally during a hearing and instead of returning the greeting they may wait for what the judge has to say, this may come across as defiance.

  • Providing relevant information…

… Whilst giving evidence in court, a defendant or respondent may not provide relevant details even when being asked about a specific incident, because they do not understand what is and what is not relevant.

  • The ability to make an inference from non-literal language or figurative language…

…A defendant may present as being evasive if they are asked “And so you saw red?” (Rather than, “Did that make you angry?”) and the defendant becomes confused, they may then get annoyed because they do not understand.

  • Identifying implied meaning (reading between the lines)…

… A respondent may be asked how their child felt when they were late to school, in dirty clothes and asked to go home to get changed. The parent may answer with “I don’t know”, which could appear to demonstrate that a parent is uncaring and not prioritising their child’s emotional needs, when it could be that they do not understand the inferred meaning that the child was embarrassed and upset.

  • Understanding how and when and to request something…

… A respondent or defendant may know that they need a break but be unsure how to request one resulting in them looking around the room or even leaving without permission.

What can be done to support people who have a pragmatic impairment

Supporting an impairment such as this can be difficult as everyone will have a different presentation. However, there are some techniques which are helpful to most people (regardless of their impairment).

Clearly introducing a new or change in topic can help people to understand that one area of discussion has come to an end and that a new area of discussion has begun, we call these topic headings. Topic headings cue the listener into the change of topic which bypasses their need to be able to independently identify a change.

Building on from topic headings, if a person has significant difficulty in topic management they will be benefitted by a break at the conclusion of a topic. The break may only need to be short, but it allows for the individual to process what has been said and time for them to shift their focus away from the concluded topic of discussion.

An individual with S(P)CD may have a difficulty understanding when they can and cannot talk and so remaining quiet in the courtroom may be difficult for them, especially if they have heightened emotions. To help support their understanding or when and when not to talk, they could be provided with a topic list so they know what is currently being discussed. They will have a chance to talk to their counsel about this topic in the coming break. The break then also allows time for the individual to ask any questions or voice any opinions which they may have been holding onto about the previous topic which would otherwise distract them from focusing on the new topic.

Let’s bring that together (click on the image to enlarge)…

Intermediaries continuously monitor a person’s presentation and appraise their communication skills within the court environment. We are reactive to what we observe; we update the court, provide additional recommendations, and create resources as necessary to support an individual.

Some strategies or adaptations may seem minor, but the correct strategy implemented in the correct way can avoid a person becoming confused, stressed or experiencing a communication breakdown.

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Communicourt selected as Managed and Approved supplier for new HMCTS Appointed Intermediary Service framework

Communicourt has been selected as a Managed and Approved Service Provider for the new HMCTS Appointed Intermediary Service framework.

The new service framework will standardise support for vulnerable court and tribunal users, by providing clear guidance, standard booking processes and will set prices to ensure fairness and quality of service. The service will start in April 2022.

Julie Parkin, Senior Head of Intelligent Client Capability at HMCTS said,

“HMCTS’ Appointed Intermediary Service will provide users who have specialist communication needs the professional support to participate in proceedings. These contracts ensure there is a consistent service and access to justice for all.”

Legal representatives and HMCTS staff will be able to select an intermediary from an approved list of suppliers.

There are two types of suppliers – Managed and Approved Service Providers (MASP) are larger providers who manage the service on behalf of HMCTS nationally; and Approved service providers (ASP) who are usually small companies or self-employed individuals.

William Scrimshire, Managing Director at Communicourt said,

“We are delighted to be selected as a Managed and Approved Service Provider for the HMCTS Appointed Intermediary Services. We have always strongly supported more regulation in this area and welcome the opportunity to be part of this new scheme. We are committed to delivering a high-quality and consistent service.”

Further guidance and information about the Appointed Intermediary Service will be available on GOV.UK in April 2022. Find out more

Communicourt signs Mental Health at Work Commitment

Communicourt has signed up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment, curated by Mind and supported by The Royal Foundation and Heads Together.

In the UK last year, 41% of employees experienced poor mental health where work was a contributing factor (BITC and Bupa, 2020).

The Commitment demonstrates mental health and wellbeing is a priority for Communicourt. We have already introduced a number of employee benefits including a free, confidential counselling service and GP access.

Operations Manager Heather Jackson is also the Wellbeing Ambassador for Communicourt. She said: “The events of last two years have taken their toll on everyone. I am really excited to take up the role of Wellbeing Ambassador for the organisation, and we are training some of our staff to become mental health first aiders.”

“The Mental Health at Work initiative is so important and we didn’t hesitate to sign up. We challenge mental health stigma through the services we provide, and we want to make sure we are doing all we can for our colleagues as well. We are encouraging open conversations, encouraging and responding to feedback, and working hard to make sure we get our working conditions and work/life balance right for our colleagues.”

You can find out more about the Mental Health at Work Commitment here.

Dementia: communication, capacity and court

What happens when someone with dementia finds themselves accused of a crime? Charlotte talks about how intermediaries can provide support with communication.

Often portrayed as a condition where people suffer memory loss, the full impact of dementia is often misunderstood. Dementia has other symptoms, including difficulty with problem solving and organising, and difficulties with communication. We often assist people with dementia in the criminal and family courts, but how can we help them to participate in their proceedings as meaningfully as they can.

What is dementia?

Dementia occurs when disease, e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, causes nerve cells to die and damages the brain. Different types of dementia cause damage to different parts of the brain. The symptoms people experience will depend on which part of the brain is damaged. It is a progressive disease and symptoms will get worse. People can also have a combination of dementias. Some of the different types of dementia are listed below:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: is caused by a collection of proteins in the brain that create plaques and tangles, that interfere with and damage nerve cells. This is the most common cause of dementia.
  • Vascular dementia: is an umbrella term used for a group of conditions caused by problems with blood circulation to the brain. This can cause small blood clots, blocked arteries and burst blood vessels. This is the second most common type of dementia in the over 65’s.
  • Frontotemporal dementia: is caused by the death of nerve cells and pathways in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It is the second most common form of dementia for under 65’s.
  • Lewy Body dementia: is caused by clumps of protein forming inside the brain cells. It’s thought that the proteins interfere with the signals sent between brain cells.It affects more than 100,000 people in the UK.

Interestingly there is an increased risk of developing dementia in later life for those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (Shively et al, 2012). Older individuals with learning disabilities are five times more likely to get dementia when compared to the general population. There’s also an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down syndrome and more than 17,000 people under 65 years of age in the UK have early-onset or young onset dementia.

Dementia is mainly associated with memory loss, however, there are many other symptoms, these include:

  • Problems with concentration
  • Difficulties with eating, drinking and swallowing
  • Changes in mood or behaviour
  • Difficulties with vision
  • Problems with perception, orientation and movement

Everybody is different and people can develop symptoms at different times.

Memory:

There are three main stages to memory storage, these are:

  • Encoding – Getting the information into the individuals memory
  • Storage – The retention of the encoded information
  • Retrieval – Getting the information out of the memory and back into awareness

There are various ways of processing information, such as, visual encoding (images) and acoustic encoding (sounds/verbal).

Encoding can be selective and sometimes details are missed and not encoded. This is where recoding steps in; recoding is the process where information is taken from the original form it was delivered and adapted into a form that we can make sense of and encode. For example, learning the colours of the rainbow by using an acronym or creating a song.

How does dementia affect communication?

There are various factors that can impact on communication, typically, people can struggle to communicate when tired, in pain or unwell. For people living with dementia, other factors impacting communication include the individual’s personality, the type of dementia the person has, and the stage of the dementia.

Some examples of how dementia affects communication:

  • A person’s word finding ability; they may use related words for example, book instead of newspaper
  • A person may substitute words for example, “that thing you write with” instead of pen
  • Some may struggle to find any word at all
  • At times a person may provide a word that has no meaning or words in the wrong order
  • Bilingual people living with dementia may go back to speaking in their first language
  • They may repeat themselves over and over
  • At times may make inappropriate comments for the situation

Some people may struggle to follow a conversation because they do not understand what has been said, they cannot concentrate or keep their focus, they are thinking more slowly, or they are struggling to put together a correct or appropriate response.

When someone is unable to communicate effectively it can contribute to feelings of frustration or anxiety and changes in mood and behaviour.

Most people with dementia also have sight or hearing problems which further impact on communication.

Why is capacity important?

When a person has mental capacity, it means that they are able to make a specific decision at a certain time. Someone who cannot do this is said to lack capacity and this can happen for various reasons, one of which being a condition that affects the brain such as dementia.

To have mental capacity an individual must be able to:

  • understand the information that is relevant to the decision they want to make
  • keep the information in their mind long enough to make the decision
  • weight up the information that is available to make the decision
  • communicate their decision in any way, this can include, talking, sign language and muscle movements such as blinking or squeezing someone’s hand

Dementia is a progressive illness, and the symptoms can fluctuate, therefore, as intermediaries we are able to reassess an individual with dementia, especially if there is a significant amount of time between the previous assessment and their court case. This allows us to inform the court of any changes to the individuals presentation. Throughout the hearing or trial intermediaries are also able to provide judge updates that inform the judge about how the individual is coping, the strategies that are and are not working, any difficulties that have arisen and any further recommendations that could be helpful.

As dementia progresses some individuals may become unable to make decisions for themselves. The Mental Capacity Act can help people with dementia, their carers and professionals to make decisions and a plan for the future.

As memory loss is the main symptom of dementia, an issue that can arise in terms of court is that an individual may not remember facts about a crime, and this could impact on their ability to plead. “English law describes those who lack sufficient capacity to participate meaningfully in criminal proceedings as being unfit to plead”. Some cases may not proceed due to a person’s difficulties, such as victims with dementia not being able to give evidence.

There have been improvements in the trial process to make it easier for defendants with communication difficulties to stand trial. One of these improvements is the right to an intermediary – who can support the defendant to understand proceedings and communicate with the court. Intermediaries can support defendants with communication difficulties to a degree, however, an individual’s ability to give evidence is a decision for the judge. The judge may ask for the opinion of a psychiatrist or psychologist, but their reliability is for the jury to decide.

How we assist individuals with dementia

As intermediaries we are continually learning and adapting to improve our work, and ensure we are able to provide the best quality support for defendants with communication difficulties.

When working with individuals with dementia we use a variety of skills to promote effective communication, some of which include:

  • speaking clearly and slowly, short sentences
  • establishing someone’s likes and dislikes
  • giving time to respond
  • making eye contact
  • acknowledging what they have said even if they do not answer your questions or what they say seems out of context. Show that you’ve heard them and encourage them to say more about their answer
  • giving simple choices- avoiding complicated choices or options for them

Some examples of possible recommendations we make that are within the court’s discretion:

  • allowing for regular breaks
  • arranging for the defendant to visit the court room before the hearing or trial to help them feel familiar with it
  • allowing them to sit near members of their family or people as part of their support system
  • restricting attendance by members of the public and reporters
  • providing a screen for the defendant to support their participation in the trial
  • removal of wigs and gowns
  • alternative communication aids

Dementia has far reaching impacts on the person living with the disease, and their families. If they find themselves in the criminal justice system, we have to do all we can as intermediaries to help them understand what is happening and ensure they can contribute to the best of their ability. You can find out more about dementia on the Dementia UK website.

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Learn more about court communication from experienced court intermediaries on The Access Brief. A growing library of free resources developed for legal professionals working with clients who have communication needs.


References

Shively, S., Scher, A. I., Perl, D. P. and Diaz-Arrastia, R, Dementia Resulting From Traumatic Brain Injury,  Archives of Neurology, 69(10).

The stigma of a stammer

Miriam tells us about her experience of developing a psychogenic stammer.

I woke up one Friday morning and quickly looked at my clock, realising I was running late. As I jumped up quickly, I felt a really intense pain pierce through my shoulder. I was quite taken aback and fell straight back down onto the bed.

As I rang my company to tell them I wouldn’t be able to work, I was incredibly confused to realise that I couldn’t get my words out. I assumed this was because of the pain I was in (caused by my shoulder). I thought to myself ‘I’ll just have a rest and hopefully the medication from the GP will sort out my pain’. However, as the day progressed, I realised perhaps the shoulder pain and speech difficulties were unrelated. My stammer got worse and at points I wasn’t able to get any words out at all.

After following the advice of 111, I ended up in A and E being checked over by a neurologist. We had a bit of a laugh about how ironic it was that I was a Speech and Language Therapist and that I was in hospital because of a stammer. As I had anticipated, the doctor ruled out my stammer being caused by a stroke and told me that his suspicion was that I was experiencing a psychogenic stammer. A psychogenic stammer typically results from emotional trauma or even emotional stress. The doctor told me not to worry and that it would probably go away in the next couple of days.

Feeling relieved, I walked out of A and E, flagged down my friends and proceeded to explain what the doctor had said with significant difficulty (because of the stammer). My friends were understandably confused by what was going on and how dramatically my speech had changed. They were perplexed at how suddenly it had come on. I assured them it was nothing to worry about.

The next month saw me signed off work by the GP. I kept thinking how ironic it was that my job is to help people with their communication in court and here I was unable to work and struggling to express myself without stammering. I quite hilariously and incredibly fortunately ended up having Speech and Language Therapy from my old lecturer from university. And this whole slightly bizarre, terrifying, and confusing ordeal was all put down to stress. And therein lies the mystery that is psychogenic stammers and how they come about.

What is a stammer?

The first question friends asked me was, “What is the difference between a stammer and a stutter?”.

Stammering and stuttering both mean the same thing, with stammering being the preferred term in the UK and stuttering being more commonly used in America. Stammering is a neuro-developmental issue that typically first emerges between 2 and a half to 3 years of age. Within the UK adult population, the ratio of men-women that stammer is around 4:5, affecting approximately 1% of adults.

There are two types of stammers: developmental stammers, or the type I was experiencing, acquired stammers.

The most common stammers are developmental which occur in early childhood. However, stammers can also develop later in life when someone has never stammered before as a child.

Causes of a stammer

Developmental stammering can be genetic or due to subtle differences in the brain structure or the way the brain processes speech signals.

It can also be caused by speech motor skills problems, where someone with a stammer tends to be slightly slower at making the movements involved in speaking, for example, getting the voice started in the larynx or moving from one speech sound to another.

Acquired stammering can be caused by a head injury, stroke, or a progressive neurological issues. It can also be caused by drugs, medicines or because of extreme distress or psychological trauma.

Situational or environmental factors can also impact stammering. For example, people may stammer more in situations where there is more time pressure or when talking to large groups of people.

Some, but not all, adults who stammer experience elevated levels of anxiety in situations where they feel they will be judged by how fluently they can speak.

How stammering may present

People who stammer may:

  • Repeat how words e.g., ‘but, but, but I went…”
  • Repeat a single sound or syllable e.g., m-m-m-manage”.
  • Prolong or stretch sounds e.g., ‘ssssometimes’.
  • Look as though they are tensing up.
  • Try and physically push the word out by making other movements (tapping finger, stamping etc).

Impact of having a stammer in court

My world felt like it had changed dramatically over night. I am naturally a very fast talker, with lots of opinions and plenty to say and share. Suddenly I felt a huge amount of stress and frustration every time I wanted to say something. I noticed how I wouldn’t want to tell a joke with friends because it took too long to get to the punchline and I would have bored myself in the process.

I noticed how I would flip between being frustrated when people would finish my sentences, and being disheartened when they wouldn’t just understand what I was trying to say. But the biggest impact for me was not being able to go back to work.

As an intermediary, part of our role is to stand up in court and address the judge about the recommendations we are making to support someone to participate within their proceedings. Whilst I am naturally very chatty and confident in most areas of life, public speaking is something I hate. All eyes on you, silence in the room, the very overwhelming sense that you aren’t coming across as articulate as you sound in your head.

Whilst I had my time off work to recover, a fear loomed in my head: how on earth am I going to be able to get back to court and speak with a stammer? How am I going to be taken seriously when I can’t even get my words out?

For many of the people we support, their first time in a courtroom will be when they are attending their trial (in criminal cases) or proceedings (in family cases). They will understandably be feeling overwhelmed, entering an incredibly alien environment, with wigs and gowns, posh barristers, words that don’t make sense, not being able to speak out if they disagree with something someone is saying. And then the terrifying ordeal of giving evidence from the witness box; being cross examined for hours on end by lawyers who seem ten times more intelligent and skilled than your average person.

I was suddenly more aware than ever before that the stress of the courtroom will only magnify a person’s stammer and communication difficulties. I realised that the stress I felt even speaking to my friends, who know me well, are patient and were in no way judging me, was nothing in comparison to the stress of trying to give you side of the story in incredibly intimidating environment when the stakes are so high. And with stammers, it is a vicious cycle. The more stress you are experiencing, the worse your stammer seems to get: a frustration which is quite hard to articulate to someone who has not experienced it for themselves.

How intermediaries can help in court

As intermediaries, there are a number of strategies and recommendations that we can make to the court to ensure someone is able to give their best evidence.

Strategies to help with expressing themselves:

  • The most important recommendation we can make for someone with a stammer is to allow them plenty of time to speak and respond to the question. It is incredibly important not to rush them, or assume they have nothing to say if there is a prolonged pause.
  • The advocate asking the questions should remain calm and not react if a someone gets stuck on a word.
  • Alternative strategies could include providing a person with a notebook to write down the word with which they are struggling.
  • Intermediaries can intervene if they think the person has been cut off before they have been able to express themselves.
  • The intermediary can recommend that advocates pool their questions together, so as to avoid repetition of questions and minimise the time the person has to give evidence for.

Strategies to reduce stress:

  • One of the main things which can exacerbate a stammer is stress. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure the environment in which someone is giving their evidence is as comfortable as possible.
  • The intermediary can recommend the use of screens or the use of a video-link when a person gives their evidence.
  • Before giving evidence, the intermediary can ask the court to allow the person have a familiarisation visit to the witness box and a chance to answer neutral questions, so they get used to what it feels like to speak in court.
  • When someone is giving evidence, it will be of even greater importance for them to have regular breaks due to the increased cognitive demands.
  • Allowing them to have a family member/ friend in the courtroom while they give evidence may also help to reduce their stress.

The Michael Palin Centre (https://michaelpalincentreforstammering.org/) is an organisation which helps individuals who stammer from all around the world. A recent report from them stated seeing a significant increase in referrals to them over the past 18 months. They attribute the increase in referrals partly to the increased anxiety and the impact of talking on online platforms, which can put people who stammer on the spot. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the helpline received more than 2200 calls, more than double the amount in the previous year.

I was incredibly fortunate. The month off work combined with the Speech Therapy I received seemed to work. I have been back working for almost 3 months now, completely stammer free. My stammer disappeared one day, as quickly as it came on. But not everyone is as fortunate as I am and some people have to deal with challenges and stigma which comes with experiencing dysfluency difficulties long term.

Working with child witnesses, from assessment to evidence

Our intermediaries Jess, Sekai and Rachel talk about how we work with child witnesses

One of the most important ways evidence is presented at a trial or hearing is through a witness giving evidence. But how does the court ensure best evidence is given when a witness is a child under the age of 18?

This post aims to give you an insight into how intermediaries can implement measures and strategies to assist a young and vulnerable person to give evidence in court. We will discuss our role, as well as the relevant law and special measures that are available to a child witness and give a snapshot of our work with a child witness, from assessment to evidence.

Intermediary assessment of child witnesses

Firstly, how do we assess a child witness? The structure of an intermediary assessment is usually semi-formal, including tasks and set questions to gain a detailed understanding of that person’s communication profile.

In order to apply this to a child witness, all formality goes out the window. Building a rapport with a child may take much longer and is likely to be more difficult than an adult. Therefore, we must put in place strategies to promote rapport building from the very beginning, for example, wearing casual clothes and leaving ‘court attire’ at home.

We may play question games or use our surroundings to adapt the more formal assessment tasks to a child friendly format. Visual aids, colours and activities are all used to engage the child in the assessment and assess their communication skills without the formal environment.

One example could be using the simple game of ‘Simon Says’ to gain an insight into a child’s auditory working memory. Auditory working memory capacity relates to the number of key words we can hold in our minds at once, allowing us to accurately interpret and retain verbal information. The average adult is able to recall 6-8 key words. In children, auditory working memory capacity develops slowly, which can make it challenging for young people to ‘take in’ verbal information and fully understand long questions in a court setting.

Assisting a child witness in court

One of the most important stages in proceedings for an intermediary assisting a child witness at court is the Ground Rules Hearing. This is a short hearing which should involve the trial advocates and judge, as well as the intermediary.

At this juncture, the intermediary can answer any questions the court may have about the findings or recommendations of the intermediary report and discuss possible measures to assist the child witness. After discussion, the judge will then set the ground rules for the proceedings, stating what special measures may be used and what steps advocates must take when questioning the witness.

There are many strategies that we can implement to assist a child witness in court, which may be agreed at a Ground Rules Hearing for use during proceedings. This may include familiarisation visits to the court, ensuring the child witness has a comfortable environment in which to wait to be called to give their evidence, or assisting advocates in simplifying and rephrasing questions in advance of the child witness giving their evidence.

Child witnesses may also be permitted by the court to give their evidence via alternative means, including in a pre-recorded video session. This approach is explored in Rachel’s first-hand account of working with a child witness and the strategies she implemented to assist them to give their best evidence.

Assisting a child witness: Rachel’s experience

Part of being an intermediary means we get to assess and work with a wide range of people with a wide range of difficulties, and we get used to coming across lots of new situations and needs. When I was given the task of assessing a child witness in preparation for her evidence as part of a fact-finding hearing, I was nervous!

I wasn’t sure how Stacey* would react to being assessed and I wasn’t even sure I knew how to talk to or engage a young person. As always, I was supported by my colleagues and found ways to adapt my assessment so that Stacey was comfortable and happy to participate throughout.

The intermediary assessment

When I assessed Stacey, it was clear she had some communicative strengths, but because of her age and some anxieties around giving evidence in front of her parents at court, I recommended an intermediary to support her. The main recommendations in the report focussed on the wording of the questions she would be asked, making sure she had a familiarisation visit to the court and that she was allowed to give her evidence over a video link.

Preparations at court

Something else that is really important for young people is consistency. I was fortunate enough to be able to assess Stacey, accompany her to her familiarisation visit and then return to court a week later to assist with her evidence. This meant that by the time she came to give her evidence, she was comfortable with me, we had built a rapport and I had an even better understanding of her communication profile.

At the familiarisation visit, Stacey was taken to the vulnerable witness suite and shown all the facilities she had access to by the usher. It made me realise how even small things, like where Stacey would go to the toilet, could cause anxiety in a young person, and how important it was to take the time to go through these things beforehand.

When she was ready, Stacey was shown the video-link room where she would be giving her evidence from a week later. We spent as much time as she needed in here, deciding on seating arrangements and the positioning of the camera. She was shown exactly how she would see the court room, and how they would see her, so that when she gave evidence the next time she attended, nothing was a surprise to her.

Familiarisation

Stacey did not realise that everyone in court would be able to see her, so when it was explained in this way, with the visual context to help her, she was able to express that she did not want one of the parties to see her. I was able to take her thoughts on board and inform the court at the Ground Rules Hearing.

It was agreed that screens would be placed around the monitor in court so that Stacey could be heard but not seen by the relevant party in court. If we had not had the familiarisation visit and chance to talk Stacey through how a video-link worked, she may not have realised this until she came to give evidence and it could have increased her anxiety to levels that were detrimental to her communication.

The role of an intermediary is to facilitate communication. Stacey was supported at the familiarisation visit by another adult – her support worker – who could ensure she was ok and support her emotionally, and I was there to ensure she understood how the process would work and that she was making fully informed decisions. As a team, this worked really well and we were both satisfied that Stacey was happy with the format and arrangement.

Another part of preparing a child witness to give evidence includes them watching their ABE interview. In Stacey’s case, we did this at the familiarisation visit. This presented a tricky part of the intermediary role, as while it was important to sure she was following her interview, it was essential to remain impartial and not to do anything that might seem like I was emphasising one part of her evidence over the other.

Instead, I monitored Stacey’s concentration and emotional management while she was watching the video of her interview and offered to pause it when it looked like she might need a break. Stacey accepted an offer of a break and went outside with her support worker for some fresh air. On her return, she was refreshed and able to complete the video.

Meeting the judge

The last part of the familiarisation visit involved Stacey meeting the judge. We went into a courtroom and the judge came to sit close to Stacey, rather than from her usual seating place at the bench. The judge used her first name and really put Stacey at ease, explaining the evidence process and why it was so important that the judge hears from her.

My job at this stage was the same as ever, just to facilitate communication and making sure Stacey had understood all the information the judge gave her.

When we finished with the judge, I asked Stacey what she thought. Before we went in, she said that she thought the judge was going to be strict and scary but meeting the judge the way we did made her see that the judge was kind and just wanted to find out what happened – another really important factor in reducing Stacey’s anxiety and giving her one less thing to worry about when she returned for her evidence the following week.

Giving evidence

When I next saw Stacey, it was for the day of her evidence. I had received questions in advance from the barristers that were planning on questioning Stacey, and the barristers all logged onto a remote meeting so that they could introduce themselves to her beforehand. We then moved into the video-link room, I made sure Stacey was comfortable and repeated who would be talking to her first once we joined the hearing.

During someone’s evidence, the intermediaries’ job is to monitor the questions that are being put to them and ensure they follow the recommendations outlined in the intermediary report. This was the same with Stacey. I had been provided with questions in advance which reduced the amount of times I had to intervene for Stacey. This was better for her as it meant she was in the ‘witness box’ for as little time as possible as there was less interruption to her questioning.

It is also the job of an intermediary to monitor concentration and ensure a person isn’t becoming fatigued. I did so for Stacey and suggested a break to the judge when I thought Stacey had been answering questions for a long time. Although Stacey declined the break because she wanted to get her evidence ‘over with’, the judge supported my recommendation and we took a short rest break. Stacey had her break away from the video-link room so that she could have a complete break from the process.

After her evidence, my role as an intermediary was complete, as I am not able to discuss her answers with her or tell her how I thought she did. We went back into the vulnerable witness suite waiting room where she was greeted by her support worker who offered Stacey the reassurance and emotional support that, as intermediaries, we are unable to give.

(*Names and key details have been changed).

The Law: rules & regulations surrounding child witnesses

Children can be witnesses in a criminal trial, but there are special procedures for child witnesses because of their age and vulnerability. The Criminal Practice Directions supplement the Criminal Procedure Rules by guiding judicial discretion, detailing a range of adjustments that should be considered in all criminal cases that involve children. 

The Criminal Practice Directions, on the other hand, are not secondary legislation. They:

  • Supplement the rules acting as a guide for the exercise of judicial discretion
  • Are binding in the criminal courts
  • Detail a range of adjustments (special measures and procedural modifications) that should be considered in all cases that involve a child witness

Applying the Criminal Practice Directions

Legal representatives must be familiar with the detailed provisions in the Criminal Practice Directions and ensure that they are complied with. These can be raised:

  • In the Crown Court, at the plea and trial preparation hearing, this hearing requires identification of any modifications sought or likely to be sought
  • In the youth court, at the first appearance
  • Where an application for special measures is granted or refused, the court must give its reasons

Special measures in court

Special measures are measures which have been put in place to help vulnerable witnesses, such as children, give their best possible evidence in court. They include:

  • Screens around the witness box – to prevent a child from having to see the defendant and the defendant from seeing the child.
  • Child witnesses can give evidence via a live TV link outside the courtroom – they will be able to see the courtroom and people in the courtroom and people in the courtroom, including the defendant, will be able to see them on a television screen.
  • Giving evidence in private – members of the public and the press can be excluded from the court in some cases.
  • Judges and barristers removing their wigs and gowns in the Crown Court to make the proceedings seem less intimidating.
  • A video recorded interview of the child witness before the trial to be admitted by the court as their evidence – a live video link or screen can be used when they are being cross-examined by the defence.
  • An intermediary to facilitate communication between the child witness and court. Intermediaries are also widely endorsed as measures which greatly improves the quality of evidence elicited from vulnerable witnesses, both because of their expertise in relation to the formation of advocates’ questions, and also because of their recommendations around the most effective combinations of special measures to invoke.

Current special measures limitations

The Victim’s Commissioner’s July 2020 Literature Review identified a number of current limitations affecting the implementation of special measures. For example, how well vulnerability and intimidation are being identified by the police, prosecutors and judges; whether the end-to-end process of preparing a vulnerable or intimidated witness for court and providing special measures is being delivered as it should be; to what extent child witnesses are part of the decision making on what special measures will work for them.

Other issues which the review identified that can undermine the effectiveness of special measures for child witnesses included: technology-related problems; poor planning of ABE interviews; and, problems with video transmission in courts. In regard to technology related problems, for example, the facilities for live link evidence leave a lot to be desired. The live link room is often very small and not child friendly; and with the current COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, if a child needs the support of both an intermediary and intermediary in the same room, it would be next to impossible to fit all three people in this space. 

Why request an intermediary assessment?

Kathryn, an intermediary, talks about assessments and how they can help people with communication difficulties

When we receive a referral to work with someone with communication difficulties, our first step is to carry out an assessment. There can be concerns about someone’s ability to take part in court proceedings for a number of reasons. They may have a diagnosed learning disability or learning difficulty, a mental health condition, or their age may be a factor.

The assessment establishes what additional support someone might need in order to participate in their hearing, including whether they will benefit from the presence of an intermediary at any or all stages of their hearing.

The purpose of an intermediary assessment is to identify communication difficulties, consider how these will impact a person’s participation in court proceedings and establish strategies that assist.

Following the assessment, we will carefully consider our findings and make recommendations regarding strategies and measures that will support the person’s participation in proceedings.

In many cases, due to the communication difficulties observed during the assessment, it is recommended that an intermediary is present throughout proceedings to assist with implementing the necessary measures. However, this is not always the case.

The assessing intermediary may determine that a person’s communication needs can be supported by the court, provided that the recommendations outlined in the report are consistently adhered to. On some occasions, the intermediary may find that someone’s communication needs are too great for an intermediary to be able to provide sufficient support.

We assess a person’s individual needs, and in 27% of the cases assessed by Communicourt, we  do not recommend an intermediary to be present at the trial/hearing.

The intermediary report provides specific recommendations and guidance for supporting communication at all stages of proceedings. This includes how best to communicate with the defendant or respondent during conferences, how they can be assisted to following proceedings whilst in court, and how they can be supported to give their best evidence.

What does an intermediary assess?

Everyone has a unique communication profile and will demonstrate a different combination of strengths and weaknesses.

An intermediary assessment aims to obtain a holistic view of someone’s receptive and expressive communication abilities; that is, their ability to understand and use language.

We will also discuss any medical diagnoses or conditions that are reported, in order to understand how these impact on communication.

We will explore a number of aspects of communication, these include but are not limited to:

  • Attention and concentration
  • Auditory working memory capacity
  • Expressive abilities
  • Literacy

Through exploring someone’s communication profile, we can identify communicative limitations, and advise the court how these will impact on a respondent or defendant’s ability to engage in different stages of proceedings.

The court environment is cognitively demanding and needs high levels of concentration. Defendants and respondents in criminal and family courts are typically required to:

  • Sustain their focus for long periods of time to follow what is being discussed in court.
  • Listen to technical legal arguments, submissions and directions, and expert evidence.
  • Remember key information over the course of their hearing which could last days, weeks or even months.
  • Respond to a range of long and complex questions and be able to indicate if they do not understand a question.
  • Provide their legal team, the judge and/or the jury with a clear and coherent account of their side of the story.

How does an intermediary assess communication?

Our assessments consist of a series of more structured tasks, as well as informal discussion and observation. From the beginning, we will be adapting to the individual’s needs and implementing strategies to support communication where necessary.

For example, during introductions, we will explain our role using simple language. Depending on the level of understanding that the person being assessed displays, we may then:

  • Use a visual aid, such as drawings or simple notes to supplement this explanation.
  • Repeat the explanation.
  • Break the information down into smaller ‘chunks’.
  • Provide a physical list or flowchart which outlines the assessment process.

Similarly, throughout the meeting we will be alert to any signs of attention difficulties. To support concentration, we may:

  • Implement breaks.
  • Offer a ‘fidget object’.
  • Minimize distractions within the environment.
  • Use clear ‘topic headers’ to direct the person’s attention.
  • Write down the tasks to be completed, so the person can visualize what is left to complete.

By observing difficulties and testing out different strategies, we can make informed recommendations about measures and adaptations that will support someone’s participation in proceedings.   

Structured assessment tasks help to provide greater insight into specific areas of communication, as well as how an individual copes when greater demands are placed on their processing abilities. For example, a person may be able to engage well during informal conversation, which may mask their underlying communication difficulties. These difficulties may become more apparent when they are required to listen to a short story and subsequently answer questions about it, or when asked to follow a series of instructions of varying lengths and speeds.

By using more structured assessment tasks, we can identify whether, for example, someone has a limited auditory working memory capacity, a reduced receptive vocabulary, or is unable to read with understanding.

The assessment environment is not reflective of the court environment; it is typically a quiet, one-to-one setting with the opportunity for a period of rapport building and regular periods of rest or informal conversation.

We have to consider how someone’s communication needs may differ in the court environment. We can ask questions about the person’s experiences at court so far, and how they feel about attending court in the future, so as to understand any difficulties or concerns from their perspective.

From assessment to court

The intermediary report will outline the assessment findings and any subsequent recommendations. This includes guidance on how language and questioning style can be adapted appropriately, and any other modifications to the court process that will support an individual’s needs.

These recommendations should then be discussed with an intermediary at the Ground Rules Hearing, to enable proceedings to run smoothly.

John and Susie’s experiences demonstrate how information gathered at the assessment stage can go on to ensure they are supported effectively at court:  

John

When John* attended his intermediary assessment, he reported that he takes daily medication that causes him to feel drowsy, particularly in the mornings. As a result, he had considerable difficulty attending to information during the assessment. However, he did not request breaks when he was struggling.

The intermediary recommended that the court consider sitting for shorter days, and incorporated regular breaks into the court day, in order to support John’s ability to concentrate during his hearing. The court accommodated this recommendation, starting late and finishing early each day, as well as taking regular breaks.

With this support, John was able to focus on and engage with the evidence being heard each day; this also helped to prevent him becoming too tired over the course of his hearing.

Susie

During her intermediary assessment, Susie* explained that she experiences sensory issues. In particular, she reported difficulty with concentrating and processing information when she is in a bright or visually stimulating environment.

The intermediary report recommended that Susie take part in a ‘familiarisation visit’ so that she could see the courtroom before her hearing and identify anything within the environment that may cause her to experience sensory overload. It was also recommended that Susie be permitted to wear sunglasses whilst in court to help reduce sensory overload from the lighting.  

The familiarisation visit gave Susie the opportunity to alert her legal team and intermediary to a light that she found overwhelming; as a result, the seating arrangements in court were reconsidered to ensure that Susie was not near to the light source. She was also permitted to wear sunglasses whilst in court. These adaptations helped to prevent Susie from experiencing sensory overload, enabling her to focus on proceedings more effectively.

*Names have been changed.

What inspired me to become an intermediary – Tracy’s story

I think it’s probably fair to say that I did not follow the most direct path to becoming an intermediary. 

It started off smoothly enough, leaving school at 18 and going on to study accountancy at university. How I ended up with a degree in social sciences is another story.  

While I was at university, I started to do some voluntary work and it slowly dawned on me that I would like a job that involved people rather than numbers. 

I was a member of a group that would collect patients from the local hospital for the ‘mentally handicapped’, as it was known at the time. We would take people out into the community to go to the pub or the cinema, and away on holiday. They absolutely loved it. 

It is shocking to think, and I don’t think the implications struck me as much at the time, for some of these people our outings were the only time they left the hospital. Some of the older patients had been born in the hospital to unmarried mothers and would probably not have met the criteria for an intellectual disability. This was the late 1980’s not the 1890’s! 

Changing my path 

After leaving university, I felt that I would like to become a social worker and decided to get some work experience before embarking on the professional qualification. I started work in a children’s home, which specialised in placements for children with challenging behaviours. Many of these children had been through numerous previous placements since they were removed from their families, and the resulting trauma should not be underestimated. In spite of the often extreme level of abuse that they had experienced within the family home, many still felt a strong attachment to their birth families.  

Sitting in family court now, in my role as an intermediary, I sometimes feel the trauma experienced by a child when they are removed from their families is minimised. Even when that move is clearly in the child’s best interests.  

So many of the people I have worked with in family court were themselves “looked after children”. Sometimes they haven’t had enough modelling of parenting skills themselves, it is therefore not surprising that they may not have the skills to be considered “good enough parents” to their own children. For all of us, the circumstances in which we grow up are “normal”. We have to be exposed to other ways of parenting in order to question how we should raise our own children, and many of the people I support in court have limited life experiences and knowledge of the world. 

After a couple of years, I was accepted onto a social work course, but before I could start, I found out that I was expecting my first child. I deferred my place for a year and then another year for baby number two and then again for number three! By this time, I wasn’t sure that I would be equipped to make the very difficult decisions that social workers are faced with making every day at work, so I had baby number four instead. 

I spent the next years at home with my children. I gained organisational skills that have served me well since I have begun working at Communicourt. All those years of dealing with the logistics of collecting four children from four different clubs or activities in different places, at more or less the same time. Some evenings, it felt akin to a military operation. It certainly makes getting to a court or an assessment on time in an unknown location seem relatively straightforward. 

Returning to adult social care

When my children were a little older, I returned to working with people with an intellectual disability as a support worker. I worked with people with varying levels of disability, some with a more moderate or profound learning disability who required round the clock support with all aspects of their daily lives. Others had a mild level of disability but with challenging behaviours or concomitant mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). They required intense levels of supervision in order to safely engage with activities in the local community. 

It was particularly with these clients that I developed skills in modifying the way I speak to enable meaningful communication to take place. These skills have been so vital in my role as an intermediary, such as using simple language, keeping the pace slow, using visual aids and checking that they have understood by asking them to repeat what has been said in their own words.  

As a support worker, you are expected to teach clients new skills in order to maximise their independence. I became aware of just how much ‘overlearning’ is required before these skills become embedded. In family court, I often hear the charge levelled at the people we support that they have not made sufficient change, even when from their point of view, they have complied with everything they have been asked to do. They may lack the cognitive skills required to make and sustain the required changes – certainly, it would be very difficult for them to do this within the child’s timescales. At the same time, I recognise that the local authority try very hard to meet the needs of the parents and use modified parenting assessments, such as the PAMS assessment and adapted parenting programmes. 

Some of the parents I have worked with find it very difficult to talk about what is in the child’s best interests, and instead talk about what they would like to happen from their own perspective. A parent with a mild learning disability or low IQ is likely to lack the metacognitive skills to look at the situation objectively, and to put themselves in the child’s position. It is a highly emotive situation and would be difficult for any parent when faced with their child possibly becoming the subject of a placement order. This difficulty is compounded when the parent has only basic functional language skills and lacks the higher level metalinguistic skills required to provide explanations and express their thoughts articulately. 

The day our lives changed

I think my route to becoming an intermediary really began one morning, when as a family we experienced a massive shock. My healthy 13-year-old daughter had a major stroke one morning, completely out of the blue and with no warning signs. The next few months passed in a blur of hospitals, first in St Mary’s in London – the nearest paediatric intensive care bed they could find – and then at Birmingham Children’s Hospital for rehabilitation. 

When she first came out of a coma, the stroke had left her with severe right-sided weakness and the inability to walk, talk or swallow. She was tube fed for many months before pureed food could be introduced. 

My biggest concern soon became her inability to speak. I introduced an alphabet board, which she was able to use successfully. Luckily her language skills had been left intact. However, although we used this with her as a family in order to give her a voice, the nursing staff were very reluctant to use it, possibly due to lack of time – it was very time-consuming – and this led to even her basic physical needs frequently being overlooked. 

Once she was discharged from hospital, she was seen by a community multi-disciplinary team, including an excellent speech and language therapist. With her support, my daughter was gradually able to recover some of her speech (and her ability to eat a range of foods). 

Her speech is now intelligible to a familiar listener. However, she has dysarthria which affects some speech sounds and a neurogenic stammer, rendering her speech slow and effortful. Although her speech is not the only area to be affected long-term by the stroke – she has difficulties with short-term memory and executive dysfunction, as well as walking with a limp – it is her speech which has the single biggest negative impact on her life. As soon as she speaks, people make judgements about her, she is discriminated against in job interviews and people frequently put the phone down on her, when she attempts to make a phone call. 

Moving to speech and language therapy

I was inspired by my daughter’s experiences, and by the positive impact speech and language therapy had for her, to return to university to study for a degree in Speech and Language Therapy. 

On graduation, I found a post as a speech and language therapist in a special educational needs school, which was an excellent first role. It allowed me to put into practice what I had learned about assessing an individual’s communicative ability, identifying their difficulties and deciding on a course of therapy.  

I quickly realised that I was not going to effect massive change due to the pupils’ complex needs, and I changed my focus to looking at improving their functional language skills and pinpointing what would be most useful to them as they approached school-leaving age and the prospect of college or employment and independent living. 

Although I enjoyed this role, I began to miss working with adults and started to look for a new post. Communicourt piqued my interest, as it seemed that I could bring to the intermediary role the skills I had acquired throughout my working life, both as a speech and language therapist and as a support worker with adults with intellectual disabilities. 

I really love working as an intermediary. The work is varied and interesting, and whilst I am working with someone, I feel like I am making a positive difference for the short time I am involved in their lives, in helping them to understand the court proceedings and to tell their story in the best possible way. I appreciate the support I get from the organisation and from my colleagues. It’s a lovely environment to work in. 

Building confidence through experience and peer support

We asked our intermediaries to tell us about the most common challenges they face in their roles. Rebecca discusses how daunting the intermediary role can be, and how support from her colleagues helped her to build her confidence in court.

Before starting my job as an intermediary at Communicourt, I had only been to a crown court once to watch a trial. Even after going through a tough and thorough training programme, I remember being really nervous about attending my first day in court as an intermediary.

Even going through the security process felt quite overwhelming. I remember waiting anxiously in the courtroom for the judge to enter and I was worried about having to stand up and speak in front of everyone. I felt out of place compared to the barristers, they seemed so comfortable and familiar with their role and the court environment.

I was sat next to the vulnerable person I was supporting and explaining proceedings as they happened. They had to make a promise to the court to stop harassing their ex-partner and I remember how serious it was for them to understand this, and how important my role in this process was.

Communication specialists

Recently I went back to the same court I had visited on my first day of work, and it made me reflect and realise how far I have come over the past 10 months.

Our role as intermediaries is communication specialists, most of the team’s background is either in psychology or speech and language therapy. Therefore, before starting at Communicourt, I had a limited knowledge of the legal system and etiquette in court.

When I first started working as an intermediary, I felt nervous speaking in court in front of barristers and judges who had so much more experience than me. Now, I feel confident and comfortable speaking in the courtroom and explaining my role to court professionals and outsiders.

My confidence comes from much more than just gaining experience, it also comes from peer support. As an intermediary, you are working on your own, we are not office-based and are spread across the UK. I was worried this might feel isolating when I started, but we have really strong networks that have shown me how important peer support is.

Secure space

The cases we deal with can be upsetting and sometimes traumatic. Being able to discuss my experiences in court with my team is invaluable. They can offer advice, but importantly they create a secure space where I can process situations and discuss how I feel about them.

Communicourt currently has 59 intermediaries, and everyone is very supportive and helpful. When I joined, it was invaluable to speak to more experienced members of the team. By discussing difficult experiences in court with my colleagues, it helps me understand what they would do in the situation. Peer support helps me to think of more creative ways of working. Our role is very diverse and there are various tools and resources we can use to help someone with communication difficulties, to understand and participate in their legal proceedings.

I have always enjoyed meeting new people and this is a huge part of my role. Good people skills are so important for intermediaries, we need to be able to quickly develop a good rapport with the person we are working with to assist them in the best possible way in court. We use different techniques to build rapport, and learning what has worked well for the team helps me to develop my skills.

Every day is different

I love the fact that every single working day is different, and I need to use various knowledge and techniques. For example, we work with people who have a wide range of different diagnoses. As an intermediary, I need to understand these conditions so I can understand how they might affect someone’s communication skills. I am always developing my skills and knowledge to share within the team.

My role involves helping people with communication difficulties to engage with proceedings effectively and give their best evidence. I need to make sure they understand the questions they are being asked. It used to be quite daunting intervening in evidence when a question was too linguistically complex for someone I was supporting. However, the more experience I have gained helping people to give evidence and practising with colleagues, my confidence has grown.

One of the most terrifying experiences for a new intermediary is when they have to speak in front of the judge for the first time. Courtrooms are imposing places, and it is easy to feel intimidated by the formality. Intermediaries need to discuss the adaptations the person they are supporting might need with the judge and trial advocates. This can include asking for regular breaks, advising on the use of language or requesting evidence be given from a video suite.

As my experience in court continues, my knowledge of both family and criminal court increases making me feel more confident in my role. I enjoy learning new things and putting my new knowledge into practice. I assist people during one of the most difficult points in their lives and the importance of my role motivates me to do the best I possibly can for every person I work with. My confidence comes from ensuring the vulnerable person has a fair hearing and understands what is being said, therefore, I make recommendations and intervene when appropriate as it is needed for them to participate as best as possible during proceedings.

How do we form a rapport and why is it important?

We asked our intermediaries to tell us about the most common challenges they face in their roles. Mollie talks about why rapport is so important for her to do her job well.

Being a new intermediary can be a daunting prospect. There’s so much to learn about the formalities of court, working with other professionals and how to assess and support language difficulties. But one of the most important elements of our role is building a rapport with a vulnerable person. Every person we support is different and their acceptance of our presence varies.

It certainly was a challenge at the beginning of my career in this field, and sometimes is still one of the biggest challenges I have to face.

What are the key factors about rapport?

There are several factors which are key in forming a rapport with someone: confidence, perseverance, kindness and empathy.

Confidence: We have to be confident in our ability to provide support to someone. If we don’t portray that, then they’re likely to just ignore us or keep conversation to a minimum.

Perseverance: Not everyone feels ready to work with us and building that rapport may take a little longer. However, if we didn’t have some level of perseverance to overcome these obstacles then we’re probably in the wrong job. Our whole job involves finding solutions to communication difficulties.

Kindness: Being kind and that friendly face amongst all the court professionals, whether it’s on a screen or in person, can make all the difference. Someone with communication difficulties who is going through a legal process may be intimidated by the court professionals. So, it’s okay to talk about normal life outside of court and get to know someone a little better as a person, rather than just a job. The person you are supporting will welcome the distraction of talking about their pets or what their hobbies are. It’s the simple conversation topics which can really help to build that rapport.

Empathy: The people we work with come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have wide ranging experiences. They may find being in court very stressful. It’s important to try and understand where they’re coming from. There will be a range of emotions in a court day and we have to be prepared for the inevitable – will they cry, leave the room unexpectedly or raise their voice?  I’ve worked with people where all of these situations have happened so it’s not uncommon. But that all comes down to trying to understand where this emotion is coming from. In these situations, we have to be emotionally resilient.

Putting this into practice

Something which can be difficult to get used to in this job is the quick turnover of cases. Each day you could be working with a different vulnerable person, and if it’s a one day hearing you have to establish a rapport quickly. Whether this is a phone call introducing yourself and telling them they can ring or message you if they need something explained, or an introduction in person, it is essential.

Top tips:

  • Let them ask you questions, because there’ll likely be a lot. There is obviously a limit about what information you should share, but sharing a few things about yourself can help to build a rapport
  • Be yourself. We are trained in communication but we are all still human beings, and people will appreciate that we aren’t there to judge them or their situation


Keeping the boundaries:
It’s extremely important to remember there are boundaries to uphold. We are not their friends and anything they tell us relating to their case must be shared with their legal team, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

What if I have to work with someone remotely?

Working with a vulnerable person remotely can be difficult. Before Covid-19, all of our work would have been face-to-face, but the pandemic meant having to adapt. You can still build a rapport effectively if you are not in the same room. It is important to speak to the person you are supporting before the hearing and ask them how they are feeling. You can agree to set up a separate communication channel during the hearing, perhaps by texting. This gives them an opportunity to ask you things and you can check their understanding during proceedings.

Building rapport is one of the first things we have to do when working with someone. It sets the tone for how you will work together, whether this is a one-day hearing or a 3-week hearing. Even though we might not be working with someone for a long time, we have such an impact on their ability to understand these important events in their lives. So, it’s extremely important to build that rapport so we can provide the best possible service.

I don’t have all the answers. I still have to think on my feet and ask more senior intermediaries for advice because our job can be unpredictable, to say the least. But whatever obstacles arise, we can overcome it. We’re all working towards the same goal: assisting vulnerable people with communication difficulties in court.