National business award for Communicourt

Communicourt has been handed the silver award for Positive Impact in the SME National Business Awards.

The Positive Impact Award is for businesses who innovate and adapt to thrive and benefit the wider community. The awards ceremony took place on Friday 1 December at Wembley Stadium.

Communicourt was recognised for innovations such as The Access Brief, a free library for legal professionals working with a client who has a communication difficulty. We collaborated with academics and organisations to develop resources which help legal professionals accommodate communication differences and difficulties at court (even in cases where an intermediary is not allocated). Our collaborators have included academics and charities such as STAMMA (stammering charity), Different Strokes (stroke charity), Dementia UK, and PTSD UK.

Managing Director William Scrimshire said: “It is so exciting to win the award as it recognises the hard work that the Communicourt team put into having a positive impact on our service users and other stakeholders. We are proud to be at the forefront of special measures and inclusion in the courts, enabling everyone to have fair access to justice.”




DLD Day: A hidden difficulty in legal proceedings

20th October 2023 marks Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) Day. The importance of this event is not to be underestimated. DLD is one of the least known speech, language and communication difficulties, but a condition which affects approximately 7.6% of all children (amounting to around 1 million children in the UK). Its prevalence in adults is unknown, however, DLD is a lifelong condition and a great many adults with DLD are likely to be undiagnosed.

What is DLD?

DLD is a learning difficulty (like dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia), which specifically affects an individual’s language skills. A person with DLD will have difficulty “learning, understanding and using language”. They may struggle to follow language (e.g., instructions and verbal information), find it difficult to learn new vocabulary (for example, terminology used in a court case), and have difficulty expressing themselves with clarity.

In terms of expressive language, a person with DLD may use very short and simple sentences, struggling to express more complex or detailed information clearly. They may make more frequent use of generic placeholder words instead of specific terms (e.g., “Thingy” instead of “Threshold”), their expressive language may be ‘jumbled’ and difficult to follow (featuring lots of hesitations, broken sentences, or verbs which don’t match with pronouns).

Quick Resources

You can find a factsheet on DLD from Raise Awareness of DLD (RADLD) here.

Download Communicourt’s free guide to DLD in legal proceedings here (which includes tips for legal professionals working with a client who has DLD).

Listen to our Accessing Justice Podcast episode on DLD with Becky Clark (speech & language therapist)

DLD in adults

Although DLD prevalence statistics generally relate to children, DLD is a lifelong condition, which also affects adults. Previously known by other labels such as Specific Language Impairment (SLI), and expressive-receptive language disorder, today’s terminology for the condition was coined in 2017. Prior to the use of this diagnostic label, few diagnoses of “SLI” (and related terms) were made. As such, very few adults with DLD have ever received a diagnosis or specific support for their language difficulties.

Working as an intermediary, I am yet to encounter an adult who has a diagnosis of DLD, despite encountering many court users who present with specific difficulties with language (unrelated to another diagnosis, such as a learning disability).

This lack of diagnosis, combined with widespread unawareness of DLD, results in many adults living with a hidden learning difficulty. This carries with it many possible negative impacts, including an increased likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system.

To mark DLD Day in 2022, we shared some statistic regarding the prevalence of DLD in the criminal justice system (CJS). These statistics remain troubling, illustrating the high level of language difficulty within the CJS:

Raise Awareness this DLD Day

This year, the theme of DLD Day is DLD Around the World, spreading awareness of DLD in countries across the globe. You can find lots of resources, including DLD factsheets in different languages on the RADLD website. Here you will also find information about the DLD “Light Up” events (where buildings across the world are illuminated in purple and yellow to raise awareness) and lots of brilliant resources (like pre-made social media posts) you can share to increase awareness and understanding of DLD. To show your support, why not…

Green speech bubble on yellow background, inside the bubble are three dots, indicating a pause.

Understanding Selective Mutism & adapting legal proceedings

Green speech bubble on yellow background, inside the bubble are three dots, indicating a pause.

October is Selective Mutism Awareness Month. This month, we published a new edition of the Accessing Justice Podcast. In the latest episode, intermediary, Demi, interviews speech & language therapist Susannah Thomson about all things Selective Mutism (including the fantastic work of SMIRA, the Selective Mustism Information & Research Association). Demi has also produced a blog, exploring the topic in more detail, considering its possible impacts in legal proceedings and sharing some strategies which can assist court users with selective mutism (SM) – which legal professionals can use. Take a listen and read more below:

What is selective mutism?

Selective mutism is a condition in which individuals are unable to speak in certain situations. The situations in which the person may be unable to speak vary. For some, it may affect them in public settings, or around professionals, for others, it may impact their communication with relatives or specific people in their lives. Selective mutism is thought to be an anxiety disorder. Although it can impact adults, it is believed to be more common in children and often arises during childhood.

In this post, we will be exploring selective mutism, its possible impact on court users, alternative communication approaches and strategies to facilitate communication with someone who has selective mutism during legal proceedings. 

Although many adults have selective mutism (including a number of court users who work with an intermediary), research into the condition overwhelmingly focuses on selective mutism in childhood. The following are facts and statistics arising from this research:

  • Selective mutism is thought to be an anxiety disorder. This can mean a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they do not see very often.
  • Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children. It’s more common in girls and children who have recently moved to a new country.
  • Research suggests that there is no single cause for the condition. However, psychologists believe that factors such as, emotional, psychological and social experiences can impact the condition (Johnson & Wintgens, 2001).
  • Those with Selective Mutism will speak in some situations e.g., at home but remain consistently silent in others (court proceedings). They may have a blank expression or appear ‘frozen’ when expected to speak (Goodman & Scott, 1997).
  • It is important to know that people with Selective Mutism often want to speak but, due their anxiety and other factors, they feel physically unable to do so.
  • Although research focuses on selective mutism in childhood can also persist into, or arise in, adulthood. Currently there are no statistics to indicate how many adults experience Selective Mutism. However, it is noted that less than 1% of the overall population experience Selective Mutism.

Common selective mutism presentations:

Selective Mutism presents differently in each individual. However, there are some common symptoms and presentations which may be seen in people with the condition. They may:

  • Find it difficult to look at you when they are anxious – they may turn their heads away and seem to ignore you. You might think that they are not engaging, but this is often not the case. Instead, they are likely to be having difficulty responding.
  • Not smile or look blank or expressionless when anxious – in court, for example, they may be feeling anxious much of the time and it may, therefore, be challenging for them to express themselves non-verbally.
  • Move stiffly or awkwardly when anxious, or if they think that they are being watched.
  • Find it very difficult to answer to questions asked of them, or to say hello, goodbye or thank-you – this may appear rude, but it is not intentional.
  • Be slow to respond in any way to a question (including when using alternative communication strategies – see below).
  • Worry more than other people.
  • Be very sensitive to noise, touch or crowds.
  • Be intelligent, perceptive and inquisitive.
  • Be very sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Find it difficult to express their own feelings.
  • Have good attention skills.

Impact in legal proceedings

For court users with selective mutism, communicating, engaging and participating in legal proceedings can be particularly challenging. Communication is essential to effective participation, from giving instructions to a solicitor, to giving evidence in the courtroom. When court users face a ‘communication gap’ they may be unable to tell their legal team when they disagree with a point of evidence or ask questions about an aspect of their case they do not understand.

There are also many specific stages in different legal proceedings when selective mutism may result in difficulties with participation. For example, in criminal proceedings, individuals are expected to address the court to state their date of birth, name, address and plea. For an individual with Selective Mutism, this may not be possible verbally. Meanwhile, for unrepresented parties (e.g., in a private family case), there are even greater demands upon communication in the courtroom itself, in the absence of an advocate to speak on their behalf.

It’s also important to note that, for some people with selective mutism, meetings with professionals (e.g., their solicitor or the guardian in care proceedings) and being in a formal court setting, discussing emotive topics or great personal significance, are likely to increase anxiety which can exacerbate selective mutism symptoms. This may make it particularly challenging for individuals to communicate verbally and regulate their emotions during legal proceedings.

Alternative communication at court

simple communication cards (Yes, No, Don't know, Break please)

In order to support an individual with selective mutism to communicate at different stages in proceedings, alternative communication strategies are often necessary. For example, an individual selective mutism could:

  • Tell the information to a trusted communication partner they feel able to speak to. The communication partner can then repeat the information verbatim to the court (or in conferences with the individual’s legal team).
  • Write their response on paper to be shared or read aloud by a nominated person.
  • Write their response on a whiteboard to be held up.
  • Type their response on a laptop. This could be screenshared within the court (so responses can be seen in real time on screen), shown in conferences, read aloud by a nominated person, or read through text-to-speech software (see below).
  • Type their response using a CVP, Teams or Zoom chatbox during a remote or hybrid hearing or meeting.
  • Type their response using a smartphone (this may be a preferred option for court users who are not used to typing with laptops, or who have literacy difficulties – as many phones use predictive options). This could be read aloud by a nominated person.
  • Use gesture or visual aids, if they are unable to read, write or speak to a trusted person (e.g., “Yes”, “No”, “Don’t know”, “Please repeat” cards which the individual can point to). Here is a useful source of free, printable communication cards.

When identifying an alternative communication strategy, there are some important aspects to keep in mind:

  1. The strategy should accommodate the court user’s unique profile of skills, strengths and difficulties. For example, an individual with dyslexia may find hand-writing responses particularly challenging. Alternatively, an older person or individual who does not use technology routinely, may have difficulty using a laptop or smartphone to communicate.
  2. In the individual is giving evidence, the alternative communication strategy should be trialled in advance, to ensure the court user is able to use this method in the courtroom and feels comfortable doing so. Different settings can impact an individual with selective mutism differently and increased anxiety can play a significant role. A familiarisation visit to the witness box or location from which they will give evidence can prove helpful, allowing opportunity for a ‘test run’ (using neutral questions) and acclimatising the court user to the setting (which can reduce anxiety, thereby supporting more effective communication).
  3. If written communication is not possible (for example if the service user is unable to read or write), exploring whether there are individuals with whom they feel able to speak is an important step, as relying on gesture and resources like communication cards is likely to result in limited or unclear responses, which lack detail and clarity. In some cases, a court user may feel able to whisper to this individual, which can then be repeated. In others, they may feel able to speak with the individual in a private space. Their responses can then be written down or typed by the designated person, to be shared with the court user’s legal team or the court (depending on the stage of proceedings).
  4. It’s also important to consider the environment the individual is in, as increased anxiety can adversely impact communication of all types. For example, a person with selective mutism may feel better able to communicate during their evidence if permitted to do so from behind a screen or remotely. During conferences, a person with selective mutism may be unable to speak with their trusted person in front of their legal team, but may feel able to do so if seated in a private room, from which the designated communication partner can relay questions and responses (verbally or in written form).

Text-to-speech tools

If the court user is comfortable typing on a laptop. Text-to-speak software is available, which allows typed messages to be read aloud.

  • Natural Readers – A free text to speech website which can be used by anyone.
  • Speechify – A free website, allowing users to pick the voice and the speed of talking (also available as an app).

Case study

I once attended an assessment to assess a young defendant called Harry [names and indentifying details have been changed]. We met at his solicitor’s office, with his mother present.

When we first met, his mother asked if I knew about his conditions, and I explained I did not. She explained that Harry does not talk and that he has selective mutism. I asked his mum how Harry prefers to communicate, she confirmed that he likes to communicate through pen and paper, and I adapted the assessment process to suit his preferences.

Harry had diagnoses of anxiety, autism and selective mutism. On first meeting, he appeared anxious, he did not make any eye contact and he would use a fidget object that I provided throughout the meeting to assist with his concentration and emotional management.

We were able to complete the assessment using pen and paper. I would ask Harry a question and he would write his answer down. If I had to ask further prompt questions to elicit more information, this process was repeated. I began thinking about ways to make the process easier for him in court proceedings.

I worked with Harry at the first hearing following the assessment. I spoke to Harry and asked whether he would feel comfortable enough to write his answers down and for me to read these to court. Harry communicated that he was comfortable with this approach.  I was very conscious to involve Harry in the process. As he was unable to speak, it was extremely important that he still had a voice in the proceedings. I met with the legal advisor prior to the hearing and explained Harry’s condition and that he did not feel he would be able to speak in the court environment. I explained the strategies discussed with Harry and explored whether the court would accept the proposed approach. The legal advisor explained they were happy with this way forward and happy to make adaptions to allow Harry to participate.

As part of my role as an intermediary, I shared my recommendations with the court during a Ground Rules Hearing before the hearing commenced, to help Harry best participate throughout the trial.

The recommendations which were agreed in court included:

  • All counsel to refer to Harry by his first name, to aid his engagement throughout proceedings and reduce any feelings of anxiety.
  • Harry to be permitted to use a fidget aid, both in the dock and if giving evidence, to assist his concentration.
  • Harry to write his answers to questions down on paper to be read aloud to the court by the intermediary.
  • Any verdict to be read one line at a time, for me to go through this key information in real-time with Harry, to allow him to better understand the final decision.
  • Harry’s mum to sit in the dock, to aid with his anxiety (for emotional support purposes only).

The magistrates approved all of these measures.

Working with Harry more than once allowed me to build rapport with him, as the trial progressed he appeared increasingly comfortable and began to make some eye contact with me. Our communication improved as our rapport built. At times, he felt able to shake his head to indicate “yes” or “no”, which had previously not been possible. The adaptions to his trial allowed him to participate in the proceedings.

Tips and strategies when assisting someone who has selective mutism

  • Get informed. Selective Mutism is a very rare condition and there is a lot of information out there to assist professionals to better support individuals with Selective Mutism. Some useful sources include:
  • Take your time. It is important that an individual with Selective Mutism does not feel pushed or rushed to make decisions. They may need extra time in court proceedings, so you are able to ensure they have a good understanding of proceedings and of any key decisions that need to be made.
  • One size does not fit all. Ensure any adaptations you suggest or implement are person-centred. Take time to when and how the individual is best able to communicate. Talking to those close to them may support your understanding. Use this information to identify adaptations tailoer to the individual (for example, do not suggest texting if the person will not be able to use this strategy), to help ensure they can participate in the best possible way.
  • Encourage non-verbal communication such as, pointing, nodding shaking of their head. Do not try to get them to speak.
  • Look out for phrases such as ‘I don’t know’. This may mean they haven’t understood the question, don’t know how to answer, or simply want to move on. Spend additional time checking understanding, to ensure important information has been processed and retained accurately.

Cited Sources

Maggie Johnson & Alison Wintgens (2001) The Selective Mutism Resource Manual. Speechmark Publishing Ltd.

Robert Goodman & Stephen Scott (1997). Child Psychiatry, Blackwell Science.

A black and white picture of Georgia on a blue background

My Intermediary Journey: Georgia and speaking English as a second language

A black and white picture of Georgia on a blue background

Hello, everyone! I’m Georgia, and I’ve been working as an intermediary at Communicourt for the past year and a half. I was born and grew up in Greece and moved to the UK over five years ago for my post-graduate studies. English is my second language, and I must admit that I didn’t always feel confident in my English proficiency.

I began learning English during my primary school years, but it was more of a basic level, similar to how students in the UK start learning French or German in primary school. About a year before moving to the UK, I took fast-pace English lessons to reach a more fluent level. At that time, I could communicate quite well in English, although I wasn’t nearly as skilled or confident as I am today. My journey has been an incredible learning experience, and I would like to share some of the insights I’ve gained along the way.

Embracing accents

One of the initial difficulties I faced upon arriving in the UK was dealing with various accents. Learning English from a Greek teacher didn’t fully prepare me for the many different British accents. I distinctly remember struggling to understand people during my early days here. I remember being at cafes when they asked, ‘Stay in or take away?’ and I had to ask them to repeat it. It took me a few months to get used to the British accent.

Little did I know that five years later, I would be working as an intermediary, communicating daily with court professionals and people with communication difficulties, in many different parts of the country, with a host of diverse accents and dialects. This experience has massively improved my ability to adapt and understand different accents. Through my experience, I’ve learned that building rapport and spending time attuning to each others is essential when meeting someone with an unfamiliar accent. Also, patience and active listening play a crucial role in bridging communication gaps.

Hearing various accents has not only improved my understanding but also made me appreciate the linguistic diversity that exists in the UK. It’s a testament to the beauty of language and the importance of inclusivity.

I understand that my own accent is unique, and individuals who are not used to hearing it may initially find it challenging. However, I’ve not yet experienced problems with court users understanding my way of speaking. The key here is the same: patience and building rapport can assist people to comprehend diverse accents. In my role as an intermediary, I always speak at a slow pace and break down information using everyday, commonplace words . This approach helps those who are not familiar with my accent and also ensures effective communication with every court user.

Idioms and non-literal language

As someone who speaks English as a second language, I rarely use figurative language or idioms. This isn’t because I don’t understand their meanings, but rather because idioms can vary significantly from one country to another. This aspect of my language background has proved to be very helpful when working with court users, many of whom struggle with non-literal language. For me, simplifying language or avoiding idiomatic expressions comes naturally, making communication smoother and more accessible for those I assist.

My ability to convey information in straightforward terms has been an asset in the courtroom. It ensures that the court users I support are better able to comprehend the proceedings and can actively participate in their legal matters. It’s a reminder that clarity and simplicity can transcend language complexities and can make it easier for others to understand and connect with the message being conveyed. In other words, less is more when it comes to effective communication.

Overcoming the fear of mistakes

Being fluent in English doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes when speaking or writing. Conversations in formal settings can be nerve-wracking for anyone, and adding the complexity of speaking in English as a second language only heightens the stress. However, my experience at Communicourt, along with the extensive training program, has significantly reduced my worries by helping me to feel more prepared when going to court and assisting court users.

As intermediaries, we are held to high standards in terms of our English language proficiency, but I’ve learned that it’s okay to make grammar mistakes from time to time. What truly matters is our understanding of the subject matter, our understanding of each court user, and our ability to effectively convey information. I’ve learnt that it’s also okay to ask for help when you need it. Openly acknowledging when we find something challenging and actively seeking assistance can set a powerful example for those we assist. By demonstrating our own willingness to seek support, we can inspire court users to overcome their hesitations and reach out for help when they need it most.

Additionally, I was nervous about making grammar mistakes when writing reports which are essential for my role. However, I’ve come to realise that writing a grammatically flawless report is an unattainable goal (even in Greek I would have struggled to do that!). What’s more important is the content of the report and ensuring that important information is accurately documented. With that said, I’m enduringly grateful to my colleagues for their proofreading (all Communicourt reports are quality checked by our colleagues).

What I’ve learned

My journey as an intermediary at Communicourt has been a transformative experience. Embracing the challenges posed by language, accents, idioms, and the fear of making mistakes has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. I’ve learned that effective communication goes beyond perfection in language; it’s about understanding, empathy, and connecting with others.

In a few words, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, remember that your unique language characteristics can be an asset. Your linguistic journey is not an obstacle, in your career, nor in life. Embrace the challenges and use them to progress toward personal and professional growth. Language is a bridge (yes, I just used a non-literal expression in English!), and the journey across it is a beautiful one, no matter where you start.

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Doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Text on top reads: Vulnerable accused conference: a digested read

Bite-sized ‘take homes’ from the Vulnerable Accused Conference

Doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Text on top reads: Vulnerable accused conference: a digested read

This month, members of the Communicourt team attended the Vulnerable Accused Conference at the University of Birmingham, attended by academics from a range of backgrounds (including law, criminology and speech and language therapy). Over the two-day event, speakers presented their research on a range of topics relevant to the intermediary role and vulnerabie defendants. ‘Intermediaries’ were a real topic of interest at the conference, with calls from academics for intermediary support at many more stages of proceedings, including at the police interview stage and in parole hearings.

We’ve digested some of our favourite ‘take homes’ below. If you’d like to explore any of the research below in more detail, extended abstracts will be published on a rolling basis on the Defending Vulnerability blog (which is great source for research in this area).  You can also check out the work of many of the speakers via their Twitter feeds (linked in each talk title below).

Below you’ll find digested read versions of:

Keynote speech from Dr Penny Cooper

To open the conference, Dr Penny Cooper delivered a keynote speech exploring defendant vulnerability in the Criminal Justice System and sharing the progress made, lessons learned and future endeavours.

Dr Cooper commented that vulnerability goes far beyond a formal diagnosis, and beyond speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). She noted, “There are vulnerable moments as well as vulnerable people”, which can impact any court user who is attending an unfamiliar, intimidating court setting where processes are not clear, customs are alien, emotions are heightened and language is complex.

This view informed her call for universal reform of the criminal justice process, which included the implementation of Universal Ground Rules which should apply in all cases, not only those in which the defendant or witnesses are identified as vulnerable. These Universal Ground Rules, Cooper posited, should include a shift to succinct, plain and simple language (avoiding Legalese), which would benefit all lay parties, irrespective of their communication skills.

She also highlighted many of the barriers to effective participation faced by defendants in general (and specifically those with SLCN), for example the layout of the typical English courtroom, “I’ve seen many a defendant struggle to hear in [the dock in] an English courtroom. They disengage. Why is this setup tolerated in this day and age?”, and the use of inquisitorial cross-examination in which witnesses are “told rather than asked about their evidence”. Cooper noted, “Anyone who thinks this is the best way to get to the truth is very much mistaken”. She additionally touched upon the very high likelihood that defendants (and especially those with SLCN) will agree they understand when they do not, and will not indicate when they have not understood.

Ground Rules, screening & professional attitudes

Discussing Ground Rules Hearings (GRH), Cooper cited a judge who remarked, “A GRH, well-timed, with the judge and advocates present, makes the case go smoothly”. Cooper went on to add, “There are two kinds [of GRH], one where the judge just skips through the recommendations and the other when there’s a genuine discussion about the witness and the recommendations”. She added, “Even where there’s no intermediary, Ground Rules for the questioning ought to be set. Legal practitioners do have the training and toolkits to fall back on, but it’s no substitute for the advice of a trained intermediary”.

Cooper highlighted the importance of improved screening for SLCN and vulnerability in the Criminal Justice System, at the earliest possible stage (ideally the custody stage). Currently, no such screening tool is used consistently across English and Welsh custody suites. Cooper explained that the courts are, therefore, often reliant on the defendant self-declaring a difficulty or diagnosis, or upon vulnerability being noticed by the judge or legal professionals involved in the case.

Cooper stated that “the attitude of judges and advocates is the single most important factor in changing practice” and underscored that it is vital that legal practitioners “understand that vulnerability and how it affects participation is outside their scope – this is the role of the intermediary”. 

Touching on the recent HMCTS Managed and Approved Service Provider framework for intermediaries, Cooper commented that it is “too early” to comment on its effectiveness. She explained that “growing demand for services inevitably poses challenges”, noting that one often hears “about lawyers seeking services of intermediary but unable to find one suitable for their client”. Despite current difficulties fulfilling demand, she was of the view that “there’s even more work intermediaries could be doing. If only England was like Ireland and had intermediaries for vulnerable suspects” adding that, “For all the challenges of the role, the use of intermediaries is here to stay”. 

Future endeavours

Looking to the future, Cooper felt that universal reform of the system is required, alongside lived experience-informed overhaul of the courtroom. She summarised: “What we have not yet seen is a universal shift in language in the courtroom. Universal changes must be implemented [as well as] a screening mechanism for suspects and defendants. That’s long overdue.”

Is Cross-examination of a Vulnerable Defendant with Intellectual Disability a Fair Communicative Exchange? – Joanne Morrison

A lecturer in Intellectual Disability, Morrison also works as a Registered Intermediary in Northern Ireland. Her presentation analysed the communication ‘exchange’ between a prosecution barrister and a vulnerable defendant with intellectual disability, concluding that this communication could not, in fact, be called an exchange, due to the one-way, leading, adversarial questioning process, heavily steered by counsel and governed by the many unspoken power dynamics at play in the courtroom.

Morrison highlighted that the “rules of advocacy” are to “lead and tell – don’t ask questions”, in order to control the witness. She drew attention to a range of power disparities, from small physical examples (such as advocates standing to cross-examine a seated witness), to larger, more global differences, such as the often contrasting educational and cultural backgrounds of advocate and witness.

Most importantly, she highlighted that, while a defendant with an intellectual disability is likely to be wholly unfamiliar with complex courtroom communication and customs (and likely to have communication difficulties in everyday life), advocates have trained and practiced for many years to become expert court communicators. These courtroom expertise mean that, while counsel may put a ‘question’ (or, indeed, a statement) to a defendant, this question is in fact a message to the decisions-makers in the case (judge or jury). The true purpose of this ‘non-question’ is likely to be unclear to the defendant (e.g., drawing the jury’s attention to a discrepancy in their testimony).

The talk went on to unpack a range of commonly used cross-examination question styles which lead witnesses, and can prove particularly problematic when used with defendants who have an intellectual disability, due to the increased likelihood of suggestibility and poorer communication skills. Morrison noted, however, that “It’s not [just] a matter of question style – that’s just one factor”. This final point is a very helpful and deceptively simple observation, which can get lost once we, as intermediaries (and other professionals), begin to experience the courtroom environment as ‘everyday’.

“Missing the Signs”: A Legal-Ethical Analysis of ‘Good’ Lawyering for the Neurodivergent Accused – Tom Smith

Tom Smith (Associate Professor in Law, University of West England) explored the concept of ‘good lawyering’ for the neurodivergent accused, finding that lawyers are “obligated to ensure being neurodivergent is not a disadvantage” in the Criminal Justice System. His research sets out principles for good lawyering for neurodivergent clients, including:

  • The ability to recognise neurodivergence.
  • Understanding the communication differences and difficulties a wide spectrum of neurodivergent people may have.
  • The ability to responsively adapt their practice in order to communicate effectively with their neurodivergent client.
  • Understanding the available adaptations and services which may support the effective participation of a neurodivergent defendant.
  • Understanding that the police and courts may not implement the necessary adaptations an adjustments.
  • Proactively acting to implement adjustments, when other bodies do not do so, to ensure neurodivergent clients are not disadvantaged in the CJS.

Cross-Examination Compared: The experiences of vulnerable defendant and non-defendant witnesses – Jonathan Doak, Debbie Cooper, Candida Saunders & David Wright

This talk identified a hierarchy of ‘deservingness’ when it came to the outlook of legal professionals regarding support and adaptations for witnesses during cross-examination.

– Child Witnesses
– Vulnerable Adult Witnesses
– Vulnerable Adult Defendants

The study found that this hierarchy results in “clear distinctions in approach”, such as limited intermediary support for vulnerable adult defendants and limited use of Ground Rules Hearings for these individuals.

This research surveyed many legal practitioners in the criminal justice system, who contributed interesting insights on the topic, including:

  • “Defendants do not get the same treatment as complainants, regardless of their need”
  • “As a [legal] practitioner, the culture […] is really very different and very far behind the way that we treat witnesses”.

The research also explored the evolving role of the intermediary when working with a vulnerable defendant, which is moving away from an “interpreter” model to a “facilitator” model, as a secure understanding of the proceedings in their entirety is essential to ensuring a defendant’s effective participation in trial. One legal professional commented, “How [is the defendant] going to answer questions about a case where he hasn’t understood what the prosecution evidence is?”

The study posited that some of the disparities between the treatment of vulnerable non-defendant and defendant witnesses boiled down to financial concerns. It also considered approaches taken in other jurisdictions. For example, “Northern Ireland has a much better model of practice. The identification of vulnerable suspects is much better. Because it’s a small jurisdiction, the intermediaries know each other, they know judges, there’s more bottom up activity”. 

The authors commented that, in Northern Ireland, an intermediary service was more recently implemented and, when it was, “There was a real sense of, ‘fairness demands that intermediaries should be available for defendants and witnesses’”. 

An Intermediary, a Defendant with Autism and Cross-Examination: A Novel Australian Case Study – Rukiya Stein

Stein is an intermediary working in Australian courts. After assisting a defendant with autism during his evidence, she requested court transcripts and analysed the interaction, exploring when she intervened, when she did not intervene, complex question types put to the defendant and simple question types asked of him. The judge did not grant permission for Stein to review the questions in advance of the defendant’s evidence.

One of the most common complex question types put to the defendant was interrogative statements. The cross-examination also featured low-frequency vocabulary and tag questions. Stein found that her level of intervention was relatively low, but remarked, “There’s a balance you have to strike as intermediaries, you can’t intervene for every question, you can get into trouble for that”, adding that the defendant was often able to indicate when he had not correctly understood the question.

The Use of Intermediaries (Communication Specialists) at Parole Board Oral Hearings in England and WalesBrendan O’Mahony, Becky Milne, Kevin Smith

O’Mahony is a parole board member, psychologist and intermediary for both witnesses and defendants in the criminal justice system. In this presentation, he explored the need for intermediary assistance in parole hearings and parole board attitudes to both communication needs and future possible intermediary usage.

The presentation reported that 18,248 cases were referred to the parole board in one recent year, of which 7,281 went to oral hearings, resulting in hundreds of parole hearings every month. O’Mahony reflected on the high prevalence of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) within prisons, noting that, as a result, many prisoners attending parole hearings were likely to have SLCN which may impact their ability to participate effectively.

39 parole board members were surveyed as part of this research. The vast majority had attended a hearing where they felt the prisoner required communication support. However, none had attended a hearing involving an intermediary. O’Mahony explained that precise figures regarding intermediary assistance at parole hearings was difficult to find (as this was not routinely recorded), but the study was able to find evidence of intermediary usage in just 5-6 cases in total (over a number of years).

Effective Participation means Early Participation: The Case for Intermediary Assistance at the Investigative stage – John Taggart

Taggart’s ongoing project makes the case for intermediary assistance at the investigative stage (e.g., during police interviews). Hailing from Northern Ireland, where the more recently implemented intermediary scheme has included assistance in custody from the outset, Taggart suggested that, in England and Wales, “We’ve neglected police custody when we talk about participatory rights”.

The presentation highlighted the prevalence of communication difficulties in the criminal justice system, and sought to unpack the slippery issue of what ‘effective participation’ really means. While sources like SC v UK (2005) 40 EHRR 10 find that this requires a “broad understanding of the nature of the process” and “the general thrust” of what is said in court, other sources, like Owusu-Bempah (2018), conclude that it requires courts to reach the higher bar of “informed defence participation”.

Taggart also touched upon a difficult question which may arise in custody settings: When is someone vulnerable enough to need an Appropriate Adult? And then, when are they so vulnerable that they need an intermediary?

Identifying the need for and obtaining appropriate adults (case study, interviews and statistical review) – Jennifer Holmes & Harriet Pierpoint

Dr Jennifer Holmes and Professor Harriet Pierpoint spoke about their respective research and the resulting insights into the identification of vulnerability in police stations, and how appropriate adults are obtained for police interviews.

At the outset of their presentation, Pierpoint explained that the responsibility for identifying vulnerability before a police interview is dependent on the situation. In the case of a police suspect interview where the person is under arrest, it is the custody sergeant’s responsibility, whereas in a voluntary interview, it is the responsibility of the interviewing officer. In the case of suspects under the age of 18, an appropriate adult is mandatory during interviews.

As part of Holmes’ recent research, she reviewed the police suspect interviews and custody records for 27 vulnerable suspects, across 3 police forces. This was then followed by semi-structured interviews with police officers, appropriate adults and legal advisors, exploring the decision-making processes than had taken place when interacting with these vulnerable suspects.

Holmes found that, although suspects under 18 all received an AA, a third of the vulnerable suspects in her sample did not. This was despite the custody records of most of that third making reference to factors likely to render a person vulnerable, such as mental health conditions.

To offer a wider perspective, Pierpoint’s ongoing work involved reviewing statistics obtained via freedom of information requests from more than 40 UK police forces, regarding the provision of AAs and the use of pre-interview assessments to identify vulnerability. Pierpoint found that not all under 18s were receiving appropriate adults. The use of these pre-assessments in voluntary interviews varied greatly between forces, from 0% to 24% across different regions. The tools used to assess for vulnerability were also not standardised across the country, with different forces using different assessments.

Holmes’ interviews highlighted great variation in the way that AAs (appropriate adults) were obtained by the police. In one interview, a detective said, “We just stick to ones that we know, really, and we just call them up on a mobile and say ‘Oh, are you free?”, whilst another reported that a preferred AA’s directed phone number was displayed in the police station. Holmes’ highlighted the concerns this raised about the close working relationship between the detectives and the AA, and the impact on the AAs role as an independent safeguard.

If you’d like to learn more about any of the research above in more detail, extended abstracts will be published on a rolling basis on the Defending Vulnerability blog (which is great source for research going on in this area). You can also check out the work of many of the speakers via their Twitter feeds (linked in each talk title). 

Rebecca (intermediary) outside Newday Christian Youth Festival her arms are outstretched in front of a big tent and she is smiling.

Rebecca Volunteers at Newday Christian Youth Festival

Rebecca (intermediary) outside Newday Christian Youth Festival her arms are outstretched in front of a big tent and she is smiling.

A big well done to intermediary, Rebecca, for her (almost certainly exhausting!) work as a Youth Leader at Newday Christian Youth Festival. Each year, Communicourt staff can take up to two paid volunteering days to support causes they are passionate about. Here’s what she got up to…

“This summer, I had the immense privilege of serving my youth group at “Newday”, one of the largest Christian Youth Festivals in England! The (very wet and windy!) week saw over 8,000 teens come together at the Norfolk Show Ground for a week of camping, worship, and biblical teaching. As a 12-14s youth leader, I had the joy of joining our young people each day at their various meetings, hanging out in the afternoons drinking the best milkshakes, and exploring the word and their faith with them. The week brings up many issues and difficulties, but as leaders we are there to support them pastorally, safeguard our teens, and offer unconditional support. Being a leader can be tough, but seeing the growth of our amazing young people makes every difficult moment worth it!

Despite the awful weather, I had an amazing time working with our incredible young people and am so thankful for the chance to be with them, answering all kinds of questions from the everyday to the big life questions. Whilst my fellow leaders may have heard me say “I hate camping” 10,000 times a day, I am already counting down the days for next year!”

Interested in working as an intermediary? Learn more about staff benefits (including Volunteering Days) and the intermediary role here.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Communication & the Courts

Purple text on plain backround reading: September is FASD Awareness Month

September is FASD Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness around Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the range of symptoms that people with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can experience. The event also celebrates the achievements of people with FASD across the UK.

The National Organisation for FASD are also working with FASD UK Alliance to promote the hashtag #FASDGiveMe5: “The hashtag is designed to represent taking 5 for FASD, whether that’s taking 5 minutes to explain FASD to someone new, taking the time to learn 5 new things about FASD, or giving someone with FASD a high-five to celebrate their achievements!”

To mark the event, we’ve compiled some information about FASD, its impact on communication, its possible impacts for court users and some strategies which legal professionals can implement to support the participation of a court user with FASD…

What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term for a range of physical, cognitive and behavioural disorders caused when someone has been exposed to alcohol before birth. As babies cannot process alcohol well, it can stay in their body for a long time and can cause damage to their brain, body, and affect their development.

FASD is a brain-based disorder and can cause a range of intellectual and behavioural differences, which may appear at any time during childhood and can be life-long. This diagnosis affects approximately 1.8% – 3.6% of the population.

How can FASD affect people?

The symptoms and their severity can depend on how often and how much alcohol was consumed during pregnancy, and the stage of development the foetus was at. It can also depend on other factors, such as the pregnant persons’ stress levels, nutrition, environmental influences and genetics. Both the pregnant person and foetus’ abilities to break down alcohol can also impact symptoms. Everyone with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is affected differently.

A review of existing literature (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2016) found that there are more than 400 conditions that can co-occur with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. This multifaceted spectrum of disorders was described as “affecting nearly every system in the body”. Some of these conditions are caused by alcohol exposure, such as developmental and cognitive problems, however, some do not have a direct cause and effect link.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can cause problems with:

  • Movement, balance, vision and hearing
  • Learning – For example, problems with thinking, concentration and memory
  • Managing emotions and developing social skills
  • Hyperactivity and impulse control
  • Communication – For example, difficulties with speech
  • Processing information
  • Following instructions

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder may also cause physical symptoms. These may look less distinctive in adults then children. Physical effects that can last into adulthood include:

  • Issues with joints, muscles, bones and organs (such as the kidneys and heart)
  • Short stature
  • Small head size
  • Differences in facial features (only present in 10% of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder cases).
  • Reduced brain size

People with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can also have multiple co-occurring diagnoses. Studies into Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder populations have found higher rates of:

  • Mental health issues
  • Psychological disorders
  • Autism
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Many people with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder go undiagnosed. It may not be detected at birth and can become more apparent later in life. It can lead individuals to have difficulties at school, mental health issues, legal issues and difficulties around independence and employment. Early diagnosis can be very important to support people with FASD to build appropriate support and strategies. It is important to note that, although some people with FASD face considerable difficulties and barriers to participation in important areas of life, many others have many strengths and lead successful lives with professional careers.

FASD and emotional management

Some of the early signs of prenatal alcohol exposure in children are intense negative moods, irritability, and sleep dysregulation.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can also impair a child’s executive functioning, which can impact behaviour regulation. Someone with poor behaviour regulation may have difficulties managing strong emotions and impulses. When they experience strong emotions, this can escalate quickly, and they may also be slow in calming down. Without appropriate support, children with these difficulties may be at risk of developing mental health difficulties, for example, anxiety disorders. It can also lead to them experiencing social difficulties.

Children with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum disorders may have a developmental delay in their understanding of emotions. A reduced emotional understanding can cause poor awareness of how their emotions and behaviours affect others. They can also struggle to understand the consequences of their actions. They can have difficulties with impulse control, emotional regulation and social skills.

Adults who were diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder later in their life may be more likely to have difficulties with their emotional regulation. Teenagers and adults are at a higher risk of getting in trouble with the police and becoming involved with the justice system. This is due to difficulties managing their emotions, anticipating consequences, as well as understanding the motives of others.

Supporting people with FASD in legal proceedings

Professionals working within the courts may come into contact with people with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, so it is important to look at what we can do to support people who may be experiencing difficulties with participation which arise from this diagnosis. In court, the condition may affect the court user’s ability to understand and effectively participate in all elements of their court proceedings. This could result in difficulties with:

  • Maintaining concentration in the courtroom
  • Understanding some of the ‘legal jargon’ used within court
  • Providing clear and detailed instructions to counsel

Difficulties like this can make the court process more challenging, and some individuals may need additional support to participate effectively. Although every person with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder presents differently, there are some general strategies and adaptations which may assist:

  • Speak slowly and clearly: This will ensure that they have time to process the information and that it is presented in the clearest way for them to understand.
  • Provide regular breaks: Due to possible difficulties with concentration, it will be important to offer or implement regular breaks to allow adequate rest time from the proceedings to support attention.
  • Use visual aids: To help with processing lots of verbal information or more complex concepts – to learn more about using visual aids, check out our free ‘How To’ guide on The Access Brief.
  • Break information down: If information is presented in short ‘chunks’, it will be more manageable to process and retain.
  • Check understanding: This can be done by asking specific comprehension-checking questions. For example, rather than asking, “Do you understand?” ask, “What did the social worker say about X?”. To learn more about checking understanding, take a look at our free ‘How To’ guide on The Access Brief.
  • Ask follow up questions: Short, simple ‘wh’ style questions could help prompt the court user to add in further detail, if they are experiencing any expressive difficulties.


Further Reading

More information around Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can be found at:


Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders lag in emotional understanding : News Center (

Over 400 conditions co-occur with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, study finds: Most severe cases have high levels of hearing loss, impaired vision — ScienceDaily

FASD Characteristics | FASD Greater Manchester

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder – NHS (

3.-How-to-support-children-living-with-FASD_Final-1.pdf (

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Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder – NHS (

Freunscht, I. and Feldmann, R., 2010. Young adults with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS): Social, emotional and occupational development. Klinische Pädiatrie, pp.33-37

Youth Mental HEalth Day logo

Youth Mental Health at Court for Youth Mental Health Day 2023

Youth Mental HEalth Day logo

by Anna Carter (intermediary)

Youth Mental Health Day aims to encourage understanding and discussion of mental health in young people. According to  , 4 in 10 young people experience mental health difficulties. At Communicourt, we frequently assist young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties whilst facing court proceedings. In this blog, we will look at how intermediaries can help young people throughout this process.

Court can be intimidating and overwhelming for any court user, due to unfamiliar court formalities, the complexities of legal proceedings, the potential consequences, and the often alien nature of the legal process to lay people.

The theme of this year’s Youth Mental Health Day is #BeBrave. There has been some and one should be careful about how they use the word ‘bravery’ in this context. We believe that asking for help is often not a matter of bravery. Many young people with mental health needs are brave every day, and some may not have important ‘tools’ required to ask for help, such as a safe environment in which to do so, the knowledge required to identify the help they need, and the communication skills to request it. They may not know who to ask, or how to ask. It should not be the sole responsibility of the young person to advocate for their own mental health needs. Young people require support from others (e.g., parents, school staff, healthcare professionals).

Youth mental health at court

Regardless of the theme, Young Mental Health Day encourages understanding and discussions around mental health in young people. To explore the experiences of young people with mental health difficulties, as well as strategies and adaptations which can assist them, I spoke to a number of court intermediaries about their work with young defendants.

*For anonymity, names and details have been changed.

Front of the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Case studies


Ellie [an intermediary] worked with a young defendant who had mental health difficulties. He had a diagnosis of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] and the court agreed to many adjustments, raised by Ellie during a Ground Rules Hearing and in the initial intermediary report, which would help him participate in the court environment.

Strategies that helped him:

  • He was permitted to keep his jacket on to help support his emotional regulation.
  • His evidence was heard via a video link so he did not have to look at the complainant during evidence.
  • The intermediary was permitted to intervene during evidence if a question was too complex.
  • Frequent breaks were permitted, which included ‘rest time’ to support his emotional regulation, as well as ‘explanation time’ for his legal team and intermediary to explain key evidence.
  • Some of his support network attended court with him to offer emotional support.
  • The intermediary sat next to the defendant and provided real-time whispered explanations to ensure he was understanding the proceedings.


Theresa [intermediary] worked with a young person at court. He didn’t have any diagnosed mental health conditions, but he was diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. He became extremely emotionally dysregulated during the court proceedings.

Some strategies that helped him included:

  • Lots of breaks. Periods of discussion in both the court and during legal conferences were kept short, so he did not become overloaded.
  • A Ground Rules Hearing was conducted, so all the court professionals were aware of his communication difficulties and strategies to assist.
  • He was permitted to leave the courtroom when he became emotionally dysregulated.
  • A support worker was permitted to sit next to him in court, along with the intermediary.


Alice [Intermediary] worked with a 16-year-old defendant. The defendant was indicted with some really serious charges, hence why he found himself in Crown Court, rather than in the more age-appropriate, Youth Court. The defendant had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], ASD [Autistic Spectrum Disorder] and high levels of anxiety. He presented as very fidgety and easily distracted. During conferences, he would become strongly focussed on matters he felt particularly anxious about. He told the intermediary that his mental health had suffered greatly due to the criminal justice process.

Alice recommended adaptations to the proceedings to help manage his high levels of anxiety and other difficulties affecting understanding and engagement, to ensure that the defendant was able to actively participate in his trial.

Some strategies which helped him were

  • The intermediary visited the defendant ahead of his trial. This allowed time for the intermediary to properly introduce herself and build rapport, ensuring they could work effectively together during his trial.
  • The intermediary fully explained her role and spoke to the defendant about different strategies which she may use at court to help him.
  • There were lots of breaks during the trial, which included time for rest and explanation.
  • The intermediary provided the defendant with a simplified order or proceedings. This ensured he knew what was coming and supported his overall understanding of the proceedings.
  • The intermediary gave the defendant a fidget object which helped him to both manage his anxiety and stay more attentive.
  • The intermediary provided the defendant with simple notes. This was to aid his understanding and retention of information in the court proceedings. Within these notes, the intermediary matched the defendant’s use of colloquial language to make the notes as easy as possible for him to understand.


Caitlin [intermediary] assisted during a one-day full trial in Youth Court. The service user was 16 years old and was being trialled for drug dealing. The trial was heard by magistrates. Several strategies enabled him to participate to the best of his ability. These included:

  • The defendant was able to sit in the main body of the court, rather than in the dock.
  • There were regular breaks.
  • All court professionals were made aware of the intermediary report and recommendations within it.
  • The intermediary intervened during evidence to ensure the defendant understood the questions that were being put to him.

As you’ve read above, the criminal justice system is a challenging place for young people, and it is important they get the support they need. Below is a list of strategies which may help a young court user with mental health difficulties to participate in legal proceedings:

  • Create a less intimidating atmosphere. For example, counsel could remove wigs and gowns, first names could be used, and alternative seating arrangements could be implemented (e.g., seating all participants on the same level, or seating the defendant outside of the dock (if at Crown Court).
  • A conference room could be reserved, so the court user has a guaranteed private place to rest when not in the courtroom.
  • Strategies which reduce anxiety or assist the young person to better manage their mental health condition could be implemented. These are likely to be specific to the individual, and can be explored by the intermediary at the initial assessment stage. Strategies might include access to an emotional support animal, permission to wear a specific item during proceedings (e.g., We have assisted young autistic defendants who are better able to manage sensory sensitivities which would otherwise be emotionally dysregulating, by wearing ear defenders or a woolly hat).
  • Use simplified language and explain complex concepts and legal terminology. For example, when the young person is giving evidence, they could simply promise to tell the truth rather than giving a formal oath/affirmation. This can help someone better understand what they are promising to do which helps to reduce anxiety.
  • A screen or video link could be used when the young defendant is giving evidence.
  • Regular breaks will give the defendant time to rest and process the evidence. They also give the defendant time to ask any questions to their legal team or point out any of the evidence they want to challenge.

By implementing these measures, courts can help young people with mental health difficulties navigate the legal system in a more effective way. It’s important to bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive and every young person attending court is different. A person-centred approach, starting by exploring their communication profile and coping strategies is therefore really important.

Further reading

The Communicourt team recently attended the Vulnerable Accused conference at the University of Birmingham, where the participation of young defendants was a clear theme. Please find some interesting comments and research mentioned at this event below, for further reading:

ADHD: The parent viewpoint

Kelly and Heather both work at Communicourt and have 11-year-old boys who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To mark ADHD Awareness Month, they talk about the reality of how the condition affects their children.

Kelly’s story

People think they know what ADHD is, but often they know nothing more than the stereotypes of children who can’t sit still and are hyperactive. My son Gwilym was never hyperactive, but he needed to move to think. He spent a lot of time in his own head, his school called it ‘Gwilymland’.

My son struggled in school from day one, he was in a small village school and most of his teachers blamed his problems on him being lazy. When he curled up in a ball under the coats because he couldn’t cope with a lesson, he was called wilful. My husband and I knew something else was going on, and asked the school if they had considered he might have ADHD. They said his behaviour was a choice and spent years trying to punish it out of him.

By the time we reached Year 5, things were very serious. We had been waiting two years for an ADHD assessment and my son was broken. He was punished on a daily basis, made to stand in the playground unable to move or speak during break and dinnertimes, because he couldn’t finish work. He cried on the way to school, and was quiet and withdrawn at home. School had become a prison, and a conversation I had with him one night terrified me and made me realise he couldn’t take much more.

We paid for a private assessment when he was 10 and he was diagnosed with ADHD. The diagnosis was a relief, but that was short-lived. The school still didn’t take his diagnosis seriously.

ADHD is a neurological disorder, and as a parent it is a steep learning curve when your child is diagnosed. You have to work out how their ADHD affects them, and then help them find workarounds or coping strategies.

How ADHD affects my son:

  • He cannot visualise the past very well, so he can’t remember what happened a few days ago. He makes connections and forms his own version of events. For example, if something happens on different days, but he is wearing the same t-shirt both days, he will think everything happened on the same day. At home we can work it out together, but at school he would be called a liar.

  • He will go into the bathroom to brush his teeth and emerge half an hour later with his teeth still unbrushed and no clear idea of what he has been doing all that time. At home we can laugh about it, but at school his ‘daydreaming’ causes problems.

  • He cannot visualise the future very well, which means he struggles to understand the consequences of his behaviour and often makes the same mistakes. At home we have the patience and understanding to go through it with him and help him to do things differently. At school, he would be punished again and again.

He is at secondary school now and seems to be doing well. He comes home exhausted at night because he spends so much time masking to make sure he fits in. He has school trauma but is coping well and thankfully is well supported at his new school. However, what could happen as he gets older is what keeps me awake some nights. It is so easy to see how things start to go wrong for young people when ADHD is undiagnosed, untreated, or misunderstood. My son’s primary school missed so many signs of his condition and they didn’t have the understanding or awareness of how his ADHD affected him. This is something my son will come up against time and time again.

I know, from my work with Communicourt, just how easily he could find himself in the criminal justice system. Research suggests 25% of adults in the prison system have ADHD. There are many reasons for this, ADHD can make someone more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. They may be more impulsive or find relationships and friendships harder. A child who feels isolated at school can easily look for attention and a sense of belonging in the wrong places.

ADHD is often called a superpower, but that has never sat comfortably with me. My son does have some superpowers, just not the kind that are going to make the front page of the Daily Planet.

  • He can talk for several hours on one topic without hesitating, or as it often appears, taking a breath 
  • He can sit next to me, watch my mouth moving, hear my words and yet genuinely not hear a word I have said
  • He can find a series of noises and repeat them endlessly, taking me from calm to full of rage in record time
  • He can get lost in a bathroom

He is also very funny and great fun to be with. Being diagnosed with ADHD gave my son an opportunity to understand himself better, and medication gave him a chance to quiet his mind and focus on things he needed to do. His diagnosis didn’t make him a superhero, he was already pretty amazing. It just gave him a chance to understand himself better and be accepting and comfortable with who he is.

Heather’s story

My first experience of parenting had been my daughter Amelia, who I might add was an angel. So, it came as a real shock with my second child, Liam, when his schoolteacher was adamant that there was something wrong with him. At the time, he was three and we were all living in Spain (they start school early!). His teacher told me his behaviour in class was not acceptable. I asked what he was doing that was so wrong and I was told that he couldn’t sit still, he couldn’t concentrate, and he kept crawling round the classroom like a cat.

I put this down to him being a three-year-old boy and made a mental note to speak to his paediatrician at his next review. His paediatrician echoed my thoughts and said there were probably too many students in my son’s class.

However, as the years moved on, the summons to see my son’s teacher increased dramatically and things went from bad to worse. His teacher was insistent that he needed medicating. Eventually, I was called to a meeting with the headmaster, two SEN teachers (who had not been asked to assist my son) and his teacher. Long story short, in hindsight, his teacher was clearly suffering with her mental health and the fact that my son couldn’t sit still tipped her over the edge.

She vented her frustration by telling anyone who would listen about his bad behaviour, including standing on the tables and tipping them over. I challenged this in the meeting and asked for specific instances, and after much ranting to try and get her point across, she admitted that he hadn’t actually done these things, but he could have. I put in a complaint to the headmaster but unfortunately, by this stage, the damage had been done and the other teachers (and even lunch monitors) treated Liam so badly it was verging on bullying. Liam hated school, and he was becoming a very unhappy and morose child who couldn’t understand why mummy had to work and couldn’t stay at home with him every day. Liam would cling to me in the evenings and hated going to bed alone. The mornings were stressful and trying to get him ready for school was a daily battle.

During this time, I made several visits to Liam’s paediatrician, who said his teachers and I could complete forms. These included a rating system from 1-5, to assess his attention, ability to focus, reading, writing skills etc. At this stage, there wasn’t much else they could do and the waiting list for an assessment for ADHD was long. I was reluctant to medicate him as I had read about a lot of negative side effects from medication such as Ritalin.

At the age of six or seven years’ old, Liam moved up to the equivalent of primary school and had a new teacher, fortunately one of Amelia’s old teachers. She was very understanding and didn’t want to pressure parents to medicate their children. She tried her best to keep Liam focussed. We saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but it was short lived. As children get older, the homework increases. By the time Liam was getting home from school, his attention span was less than a mosquito’s. He would physically sob most afternoons, trying to get his homework completed.

Early in 2018, Liam was called for an ADHD assessment, which essentially consisted of him drawing a picture while I had a conversation with the consultant. We walked away with a prescription for Medikinet for Liam’s ADHD and Melatonin to help him sleep. I was not pleased but, by this stage, had other issues and needed to try something.

To be honest, the Medikinet was a Godsend. Liam did not need the Melatonin as the medication had worn off by bedtime.

In 2019 Liam and I moved to the UK, and I managed to reserve him a place a lovely village school. The difference in attitude towards children with ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions in the UK compared to Spain is like night and day! I am pleased to say that Liam has gone from strength to strength since being back in the UK and has recently moved up to secondary school. I had a meeting last week with the SEN department and was told that his teachers weren’t even aware that Liam had ADHD and that he was doing really well.

Over the last nine years I have learned so much about ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions and learning disabilities. However, it hasn’t been easy and I feel there is still a lack of information for parents and patients alike. I have many friends who think they might have ADHD, but they have no idea how to go about getting an assessment. It would be great if awareness could be raised and help could be more widely available in the future.

Why questions in advance matter

Holly examines how questions in advance can help legal professionals and their clients.

At the vast majority of Ground Rules Hearings, both in criminal and family cases, Communicourt intermediaries request questions in advance. This practice involves all advocates submitting their intended questions for the respondent, intervenor, witness or defendant to the intermediary in advance of the service user’s evidence. 

There are some common objections to the practice, which include the time demands it places upon advocates and concerns regarding the confidentiality of questions. However, in many cases, this measure (which ensures all questions remain strictly confidential) has a considerable positive impact upon service users’ ability to give their best evidence. 

In this post, we’ll be taking a closer look at questions in advance, exploring how the process works and why it often assists individuals with communication difficulties.

What are questions in advance?

Questions in advance are frequently raised by intermediaries at Ground Rules Hearings. This measure is widely discussed in guidance and practice directions regarding vulnerable witnesses. Section 5.5 of the Family Practice Directions (3AA), for example, states, “The court must consider whether to direct that […] questions or topics to be put in cross-examination should be agreed prior to the hearing”.

Section 3 of The Advocate’s Gateway: Toolkit 1: Ground Rules Hearings and the Fair Treatment of Vulnerable People in Court, provides helpful information regarding questions in advance. This resource writes, “It is reasonable for judges to ask advocates to write out their proposed questions for the vulnerable witness and share them with the judge and the intermediary (where there is one):So as to avoid any unfortunate misunderstanding at trial, it would be an entirely reasonable step for a judge at the ground rules hearing to invite defence advocates to reduce their questions to writing in advance. (R v Lubemba; R v JP [2014] EWCA Crim 2064, para 42)”.

The Advocate’s Gateway goes on to list a number of clear rules which should apply to this special measure, including:

  • questions provided to the intermediary are strictly confidential and not to be shared or “telegraphed” to any other professional, party or the service user
  • the provision of questions in advance is a matter for the judge who will consider whether approving this measure is in the interests of justice
  • the judge has ultimate responsibility for determining the appropriateness of a question, but may be assisted by information from an advocate or intermediary in doing so

How do questions in advance work?

When questions in advance are agreed at a Ground Rules Hearing, a Communicourt intermediary will typically request that they are provided no later than 48 hours in advance of the service user’s evidence. This will allow sufficient time for the intermediary to review questions and provide feedback to all advocates. Questions are generally requested from all advocates who plan to question the service user. 

Once received, the intermediary will review questions, drawing from the service user’s intermediary report (which will include recommendations regarding question style), their experience of the service user (who the intermediary may have spent considerable time with during proceedings), case notes written by previous Communicourt intermediaries and any other information which may be available (e.g. cognitive assessments).

The intermediary will augment each set of questions, providing suggestions for rephrasing, alongside a rationale for any changes. The following fictitious example with Ms X may provide an insight into this stage of the process:

On Sunday evening 8th June 2018 you all had dinner together?

This question is phrased as a statement which is advised against in the intermediary report. It contains time concepts , which may prove challenging for Ms X. This could be rephrased as:

On the day Child A went missing, did you all have dinner together?

Then the children had a bath, then Child B FaceTimed her mum, Is that right?

This is a tag question appended to a multiple part assertion. These question types are advised against in the intermediary report. This could be rephrased as follows:

What happened after dinner?


When did Child B FaceTime her mum?

Was it before or after the children had a bath?

The intermediary may add comments including suggestions regarding how to assist communication when:

  • asking a question containing time and date concepts
  • referring the service user to written information
  • the service user has expressive communication difficulties
  • the service user has difficulties with attention

Rephrasing question types the service user may not understand or may have difficulty responding to with clarity, including:

  • tag questions
  • interrogative statements
  • questions containing negatives
  • multiple part questions
  • lengthy questions
  • questions preceded by preamble

Or they may suggest simplification of questions containing vocabulary the service user may not understand.

The reviewed questions will then be returned to the relevant advocate. If any queries arise upon receipt of suggested rephrasing, the intermediary will be happy to assist advocates for all parties, as their role is neutral and simply to facilitate best practice communication with the service user. 

Reviewed and, in some cases, simplified questions can then be put to the service user during their evidence. During evidence, additional questions may arise. In this situation, advocates can apply feedback from the reviewed questions or the intermediary can monitor new questions as they are put to the service user and intervene if they may be too complex.

The advantages of questions in advance

The key advantage of implementing this practice is that it reduces the risk that questions which may pose difficulty to the service user will be put to them. Although an intermediary can intervene when potentially problematic questions are asked, this approach can disrupt the flow of evidence and requires the service user to process the original complex question, the intervention and the new, simplified question – thus increasing the cognitive demands upon them.

It is often challenging for an intermediary to intervene rapidly enough to prevent a service user answering a complex question which they may not have fully understood or may have difficulty answering clearly. This means the service user may need to answer both the original question and the simplification, which can ultimately increase confusion and impact the clarity of their evidence. It can also increase anxiety for the service user if the intermediary has to intervene after a question, they may assume they have made a mistake and find it harder to continue with the process.

The provision of questions in advance often markedly reduces the need for intermediary intervention during evidence and helps to ensure that questions are put to services users in their simplest form on the first occasion, assisting them to give their best evidence in a clear, smooth and timely manner. 

Common objections to questions in advance

While many judges and barristers are very happy to order questions in advance and provide these to an intermediary, a few common queries and objections arise:

  • Will questions be shared with the service user?

The intermediary’s duty is inherently to the court. All questions received from all parties are kept strictly confidential and are not to be seen by any other party, including the service user or their legal team. The intermediary will not notify the service user of any questions, topics, themes or areas of questioning which may arise, and will not in any way ‘prepare’ them to answer questions.

  • Counsel are experienced and are familiar with the Advocate’s Gateway

Although many advocates are highly skilled at questioning individuals with communication difficulties, the demands of examining a witness while also carefully monitoring each question for complex syntax, features and vocabulary are considerable. The practice of writing questions in advance to undergo intermediary review can assist all advocates.

  • The demand upon counsel’s time is too great

Requiring counsel to provide questions in advance certainly adds to advocates’ already considerable workloads. However, by minimising the need for intermediary intervention and the risk of difficulties arising during a service user’s evidence, an overall time-saving stands to be made by the court. If advocates have limited time to provide questions in advance, it may be helpful to agree for a smaller selection of sample questions to be provided. This will ensure there is opportunity for the intermediary to provide feedback on the structure and framing of questions, while reducing the demands placed on counsel.

  • Will topics in advance suffice?

At some ground rules hearings, topics in advance are suggested as an alternative to questions in advance. Although a list of topics in advance may assist service users with attention difficulties (who may benefit from resources such as ‘topic cards’ to remain focussed), they do not allow the intermediary to provide feedback on the structure of questions or the vocabulary they contain. Rather than topics in advance, a small selection of sample questions (as above) is often a more helpful alternative.  

The question of whether to order questions in advance can be a challenging one for judges keen to strike a balance between making realistic demands of busy advocates, while assisting service users to give their best evidence. From an intermediary perspective, the practice is almost always worthwhile, resulting in smoother evidence which allows service users the best opportunity to attend to, process and respond clearly to questions in the first instance, thus saving the court time overall. 

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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, including an information sheet on Questions in Advance.