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?

AND/OR

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. 

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.

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.


References

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

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.

Schizophrenia: myths, stigma and prejudice

Elizabeth is one of our intermediaries and she has written a post to explore how the condition is misunderstood.

We provide communication support for defendants in criminal courts and respondents in family proceedings. We all have a strong passion for equality and fairness and every day we work with individuals that have a wide range of diagnoses. One of which is schizophrenia.

Mental health remains a hugely complex and misunderstood topic. Do the general public truly and fully understand schizophrenia, or are we surrounded by myths, stigmas and prejudices?

What we need know about schizophrenia?

Statistics

  • In England, approximately one adult in every 100 will live with a diagnosis of schizophrenia
  • Schizophrenia affects 20 million people worldwide but is not as common as many other mental disorders
  • About 20% of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide
  • Approximately 5 or 6 percent of people with schizophrenia die by suicide

The statistics may acknowledge that schizophrenia is less common than other mental disorders however the prevalence still shocked me as being higher than expected.

The NHS defines schizophrenia as a severe long-term mental health condition that causes a range of different psychological symptoms. Doctors often describe schizophrenia as a type of psychosis. This means the person may not always be able to distinguish their own thoughts and ideas from reality.

What are the common symptoms?

Things that might start happening include:

  • Delusions – unusual beliefs not based on reality
  • Hallucinations – hearing or seeing things that do not exist outside of the mind
  • Disorganised speech
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Movement disorders

Things that might stop happening:

  • Showing interest in everyday activities
  • Caring about your personal hygiene
  • Wanting to avoid people, including friends
  • Difficulties remembering things

Schizophrenia also shares traits with other mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, OCD, panic disorder, PTSD, substance use disorders and personality disorders. So, we must bear in mind that people can be suffering in multiple ways.

Is schizophrenia misunderstood?

Whilst researching I realised there is lots of incorrect information floating around which is distorting people’s knowledge and understanding, and the media, TV shows, and films often use stereotypes.  

Myths

  • Schizophrenia causes someone to be violent
  • People with schizophrenia have a split personality
  • They can’t hold a job down
  • There is a dramatic change of character
  • Schizophrenia makes people lazy
  • Schizophrenia requires long term hospitalisation
  • It is caused by bad parenting
  • If your parent has schizophrenia, then you will have it too
  • People with schizophrenia aren’t intelligent
  • You can never recover from it

These statements are all false. People think schizophrenia is about having a split personality or multiple personalities, or someone behaving irrationally. This all highlights that not everybody understands the true complexity of this diagnosis.   

What is it really like to live with schizophrenia?

People need support with mental health conditions, not prejudice. We should not judge situations, feelings or lives of those that we have never experienced or that we cannot comprehend. If we do not take the time to be educated, or to ask questions, then we won’t understand.

So, what is it really like to live with schizophrenia? These quotes are from real life stories and accounts of people who live with schizophrenia every day of their lives.

“Cognitive symptoms make it hard to pay attention and hard to focus”

“Your brain is just racing, it can’t stop”       

“My first symptom of schizophrenia was pretty much just zooming out, thinking I was in a different place. Then it turned into kind of voices in my head”

“I get plagued by thoughts that are just so repetitive in my head and they just go around over and over again, when really you just want them to be nice and quiet and silent”

“It can be lonely, the paranoia, the fear, the voices. Everything that goes along with it”

“I started seeing things, and hearing voices. I didn’t want to get dressed or even get out of bed. I didn’t understand what was going on”

“Schizophrenia is different for everyone”

“Everything was getting bigger, smaller, louder, quieter; my ability to process information coming in through my senses started breaking down”

“Hallucinations are often auditory but can be accompanied by odours, visions, and tastes”

How does schizophrenia affect communication?

We know that hallucinations and delusions are commonly associated with schizophrenia, but this neurological disorder can also affect communication skills in many ways such as, disorganised speech, trouble expressing emotions, slower processing speed and working memory deficits.

More specifically:

Alogia refers to a lack of speech by the inability to put thoughts together. For example, someone may pause for a long time between words.

Disorganised thinking in speech leads individuals to lose their trail of thought during a conversation, become tangential jumping from topic to topic, give answers to unrelated questions, speak continuously providing irrelevant details, or even speech becoming completely jumbled.

Affect refers to a restricted range of expressed emotions. People with affective flattening show relatively immobile and unresponsive facial expressions, little body language or movement and poor eye contact.

Schizophrenia can also create disturbances in receptive language and understanding the messages of others.

Any one of us may be speaking to someone who displays these symptoms, yet not have any idea that they are diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is an invisible condition and so there are no obvious or physical signs to let us know.

How do intermediaries help?

We are professionally trained to assist people with communication difficulties. We use a whole range of strategies and techniques to help people understand and participate throughout life changing court proceedings. Ensuring that their voice is heard. No matter what difficulties they possess. We also keep learning and educating ourselves so we can adapt our work to meet the needs of individuals with diagnosis such as schizophrenia.

Whilst Communicourt intermediaries have undergone extensive training, and obtained degrees, our intermediaries possess more than that. We are calm and patient. We know when to listen. We know when to intervene. We do not judge. We are able to pick up on signs and cues, that others perhaps cannot. Lastly, we love the job we do.

Case study 1: an intermediary assessed a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia

Mr X alluded to experiencing paranoid thoughts throughout the assessment.

I can’t sit and stand in front of people, I don’t like people looking at me, I hate it. I always feel like that, everywhere I go I think people are looking at me, it’s why I just stay in all day”.

He added that he thinks people are “planning things” when they look at him.

I asked him if he currently experiences auditory or visual hallucinations. He reported, “I’ve heard voices before. It’s more when I’m by myself” and “… most of the time I just hear someone calling my name, so I look around to see where it’s coming from”.

He reported emotional management difficulties related to his diagnosis, for example, he expressed his mistrust of people and his worries about being in the busy court room for his trial.

I recommended to the court that Mr X attended his trial, accompanied by me, via a live video-link, in a separate room to the main court room. Mr X reported anxieties relating to his diagnosis of schizophrenia and having to sit in the main court room, due to the amount of people present in court and his beliefs that everyone will be staring at him. If he is unable to manage his emotions in the court room, it will likely have a detrimental impact on his ability to attend to the evidence.

If Mr X was not permitted to attend his whole trial via a video-link, I recommended consideration should be given to the use of one if he was to give evidence.

My other recommendations included:

Introduce each new topic of conversation to assist Mr X’s engagement, understanding and concentration. Mr X appeared to relax into the assessment process when I clearly outlined topics and tasks and told him what to expect.

Maintain a neutral tone while questioning Mr X. Avoid asking questions in an adversarial manner. This may assist Mr X to manage and regulate his emotions during cross-examination. He responded well to questions during the assessment, where the tone of questioning was informal and non-confrontational.

Breaks are also likely to assist Mr X to manage his emotions. I would monitor Mr X’s emotional state and draw the judge’s attention to any difficulties he is having, or if he needs any additional breaks.

Case study 2, an intermediary worked with a woman during family court proceedings

As soon as I started to work with Ms X, I picked up on various symptoms that she was presenting with.

For example –

Delusions – Ms X often did not trust who the professions were and what their role was. For example, she believed the local authority’s barrister was the clerk. Ms X could not shift her disbeliefs.

Trouble concentrating – Ms X struggled to focus on the evidence being heard in court and during conferences when checking her understanding, she did not retain the correct or relevant information.

I recommended that the court should do informal introductions. All professionals individually introduced themselves to Ms X in a relaxed environment outside of the court room. This was to help Ms X understand who acted on behalf of who and what their role was.

My other recommendations included:

Visual stimuli. I recommended Ms X should be positioned so that she could clearly see each lawyer or witness as they were speaking which successfully aided her focus and concentration. 

Promote trust. To alleviate any feelings of mistrust, I recommended all professionals avoided engaging in general ‘chit chat’ with each other whilst in the court room to clearly demonstrate clear boundaries of the opposing teams. I also advised all professionals to speak openly about the proceedings in front of Ms X, which stopped Ms X from thinking that information was being hidden from her. Both recommendations promoted better engagement from Ms X and ability to effectively participate in the hearing.

National schizophrenia awareness day is a chance to think about all those people who live with this misunderstood condition. Rethink Mental Illness shines a spotlight on the condition and the dedicated work to improve the quality of life for people living with schizophrenia and their carers. Find out more.

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

In the latest post in our ‘What Inspired Me’ series, Maija tells us about her career path and how she became an intermediary.

I recall being a young Finnish girl, aged perhaps five, and feeling immensely puzzled. I had been in a scuffle and had explained to a kindergarten teacher (in what I thought was great detail) why it was that a friend and I had got into that fight. I thought my explanation was as clear as day, but when the story was relayed back to my parents by that same teacher, the message sounded nothing like what I had said.

Oh, the feeling of frustration and the injustice of it all; how could she not have understood what I had tried to explain? This was all the more strange to me. as I was used to keeping my communication simple. My big sister had a learning disability – mild but significant enough for her not to be able to express herself clearly or understand when people used complicated language. That was the first inkling in my little girl’s brain that the ‘biggest problems in the world’ seemed to stem from misunderstandings.

Over time, this issue of understanding kept raising its head and I wondered why some of us understand things easier than others. Why was it that I struggled to understand what the mathematics teacher was saying, but my friend soaked it all in and got straight As? However, that same friend could not get the rules of English language, try as she might, whereas I had absorbed those with very little difficulty. In fact, I loved learning English (and other languages, for that matter). It made me feel powerful to be able to communicate in a wholly different language system; it was like decoding secret messages.

Finding the right path

Playing to my strengths, I decided that languages would be the path for me. I enrolled on course in University in London to study English and Russian, got my degree and worked as a freelance translator for some time. But I soon found that it was a lonely existence and I got a job in the music industry while, again, deciding ‘what to do when I grow up’.

Five years went by in a blink of an eye, and it dawned on me that I was still very drawn to the issues of communication and understanding. So, I enrolled on a sociolinguistics Masters course. Some of the issues I covered included, if men and women really do communicate very differently, is it nature or nurture? Is it even so clear-cut? Can it be so clear-cut? (It can’t, by the way.) It was exciting and interesting, but when it was all over I found myself with yet another degree and no idea what to do with it.

I then got offered a job in a well-known London art gallery quite by accident. I was blinded by the glamour and found myself on different career path once more. Another six years later, having risen from a temp to a role of a consultant within the arts sector, the glamour was all but gone. I now found myself sitting at a desk in an art centre, in trendy Shoreditch at 9pm on a Friday night, in charge of the operations and pressing numbers on a spreadsheet in time for payroll.

I had become stressed, cynical and deeply unhappy, working in an industry which lacked empathy and left me feeling cold and meaningless. It dawned on me that I was still not where I was supposed to be and it was time to make yet another change; to do something meaningful with my life. Something that made a difference, and even more – I wanted to see the difference that I was making.

Going back to study

In my spare time, I had started volunteering with an elderly (fellow) Finnish woman with significant communication difficulties due to vascular dementia. Every fortnight we spent a few hours talking. I supported her to understand the world as she was experiencing it, and to recall moments of her past by talking about old photos or singing old Finnish popular songs. In those few hours I felt I was doing something more real, more immediate and tangible than in any of my work as a consultant in arts and culture. Perhaps there was something in that; helping another person communicate – giving someone an experience of being heard.

After that night sitting alone in the empty arts centre finishing work, I went home with a mission; find out what I can do with my existing degrees, knowledge and how to go about getting it. After doing extensive research, I found that my profile matched point by point with that of a Speech and Language Therapist. Eureka! I had learned about how we speak differently (languages), why we speak differently (sociolinguistics), and now it was time to learn about what could go wrong in language use and how that could be compensated. I applied on a postgraduate course and got accepted as a full time student at the grand old age of 40.

During the application process I quickly realised that I possessed many qualities that suited the role already. Of course, I had already supported the communication needs of my older sister since I had learned to speak (although as we know, not always entirely successfully!) and I had worked with that lovely elderly lady for some time. But there were other factors that had cropped up over the years.

My mother had problems with her hearing and I was used to adjusting my communication style for her. Further diagnoses of progressive conditions for both of my parents (Parkinson’s for mum and Alzheimer’s for dad) meant that further adjusting would be required in the future. The course was hard, much harder than I had expected, yet I knew that this was it. This was the right path; I was finally finding out how to tackle this uncomfortable idea of misunderstandings.  

Working in a forensic setting

As a Speech and Language Therapy student, having various practical work experience on a placement is a vital part of the learning process. I had found working with children in a primary school lovely, although I did not envisage working with children full time. But when I was offered another school placement at the beginning of the second year, my heart sank; I wanted experience working in an adult setting too. By chance, I heard another student complain that she had been given a placement in a forensic mental health unit but had wanted a placement in a school instead. I jumped at the chance and suggested that we swap, despite not having a clue what ‘forensic mental health unit’ might actually mean in practice.

It meant working with offenders with various mental health difficulties in a medium security setting. That placement was incredibly challenging, but also life changing. It was hard work, unpredictable, often quite depressing, but also rewarding beyond my expectations. I had my first taste of what it was like working with men and women who had gone through the justice system, many of whom, I suspect, had not had the benefit of an intermediary in court to support their understanding and processing of the proceedings or to tell their side (although I did not at the time know what an ‘intermediary’ was).

During the first year after graduating, I came across a job advert for Communicourt working with defendants who have problems with communication. What a curve ball! Reading the job advert, I got goosebumps. They wanted resilient people, who felt passionately about justice and language. The role was about ensuring people with significant communication difficulties, who were defendants or respondents in criminal and family courts, could understand what was happening to them. It was about giving people a voice, and being someone who was able to decode what they wanted to say. Reading that job application, I knew I had to become an intermediary.

“As an intermediary, I stand on the side of justice. The person I am in court with must have a chance to fully understand why they are there, and to give their best possible evidence without fear of not being understood or misunderstood.”

I can truly say that my role fulfils all of the areas that I so desperately wanted to work on in my career. The need for empathy is a prerequisite – I would argue that it can be very difficult to understand another person’s point of view unless you are, at least in part, able to put yourself in their shoes. And almost every day, I get to try to untangle some form of misunderstanding; if not one that has already occurred, then attempting to prevent one from happening in the first place.

The vulnerable people I have worked with often feel grateful for the help they receive from an intermediary. But I do not take this for granted. Some feel resentful and some do not care. The best situations have been when the person has felt they have had their say with full understanding, knowing that I helped facilitate this feeling of agency.

As an intermediary, I stand on the side of justice. The person I am in court with must have a chance to fully understand why they are there, and to give their best possible evidence without fear of not being understood or misunderstood. And vice versa, to ensure that justice has been served, the officers must feel confident that they have been able to express (with help) what the accusations are, and equally importantly, that they themselves have understood as much as possible what the defendant’s point of view is.

So my dream job of “taking on misunderstandings” is not always easy. Some days are sad, some days are tiring, particularly when supporting someone give evidence over several days. But I do my job with the knowledge that I am doing my little bit. With empathy and objectivity, and with the knowledge that the vulnerable people get the justice they are entitled to. I wish I could go back and explain that to my kindergarten teacher now.

Are you interested in becoming an intermediary? We are looking for people to join our team. Find out more and how to apply.

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

As part of a new blog post series, Andrew tells us what inspired him to move across from working as a speech and language therapist at an acute brain injuries unit to become a Court Appointed Intermediary.

So, imagine you are accused of something. You can’t understand what. You don’t know why, and every time you try to explain yourself things just seem to get worse. People dressed in suits saying words you don’t know.

Why am I starting this post by making you think of a Kafkaesque nightmare? Because, if you have communication impairments, sometimes those nightmares can become reality.

My background is in Speech and Language Therapy, I qualified several years ago and spent three and a half years working with adults with communication impairments. Part of this time was spent working on an acute neurological rehabilitation unit with people who suffered from severe impairments.

Hidden disabilities

Unfortunately, a sad truth of brain injuries is that a fair amount of the ways you end up in hospital, may also put you in jail. Fights, road traffic accidents and all other sorts of weird and creative ways of hurting your head, often mean the police need to speak to you.

Now this can make things tricky, because the police have a job to do. If they can see the person they need to speak to is sat up and talking, they may assume they can ask them questions. Unfortunately, that isn’t how communication issues work, they are deeper and often not initially visible. Being able to say words is a key part of communication, but it doesn’t mean that someone’s communication is unimpaired.

Every day at work in the unit, I could see the impact of a lack of awareness of communication impairments. Often in life, the more serious something is, the more complex the language becomes. It is true in hospitals, and it is true in the legal system. In hospitals there are specialists there to support vulnerable people who are making difficult decisions. I wondered what happened to these people in my unit when they left the hospital.

Over the next year or so these questions lingered at the back of my mind. Occasionally I would read a study suggesting that language impairments were high in the young offenders or prison populations, and I would wonder how these people navigated the legal system as defendants.

Then while looking through the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy’s website, I discovered Communicourt and realised it was something I wanted to be a part of. The aim of the organisation is to raise awareness of the impact of communication impairments on decision making, understanding choices, explaining wishes and making fully informed decisions in the legal system.

Being able to say words is a key part of communication, but it doesn’t mean that someone’s communication is unimpaired.

Total communication

By using the speech and language approach of providing a “total communication” environment, Intermediaries are able to provide person-centred support. This means making simple changes to our communication and environment so that we can improve interaction and understanding. This can include making sure we use language tailored to the level someone can understand, and thinking about how the lighting or background noise will affect them. Paying attention to body language and how visuals and pictures might aid communication.  We can then make recommendations to the court on the best environment to minimise someone’s anxiety, or assist legal professionals in the best way to phrase questions.

So now I know what happens to these individuals who are facing court proceedings as a defendant. They are supported by a compassionate and dedicated team of Intermediaries. Our aims are to increase understanding and facilitate choice. We break down information into ‘chunks’ that the vulnerable person can understand, and this in turn helps them to make informed decisions and not become overwhelmed.

In short, we help vulnerable people make informed decisions and access the justice system in a way that they wouldn’t be able to without the support of an intermediary. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Learning Disability Week 2021: Creativity in the role of an intermediary

The theme for this year’s Learning Disability Week is art and creativity. In our latest blog post, Carla and Jodie talk about how we have to be creative in our roles every day to support people with learning disabilities.

As intermediaries, it has always been important to be creative in our role and use strategies to think outside of the box to help support people throughout the court process. With the events of the last 18 months, this has encouraged us to think even more creatively, and develop new and abstract ways of supporting people with learning disabilities in court.

With the introduction of remote hearings, we have had to learn how to support people using a range of online platforms, whilst still providing the same degree of support that we would in a court room. We have also had to adapt our face-to-face practice due to the rules of social distancing. This has meant we cannot be sat as close to the person we are working with, and presents challenges in effectively communicating during proceedings. So, getting creative has been the solution.

For a lot of people with a learning disability, communication can be challenging and being presented with large volumes of verbal information can be overwhelming and difficult to retain. Visual aids are a useful component that intermediaries use every day in court settings to help explain tricky concepts.

Criminal Court

We use visual aids in a variety of different ways, such as, timelines, symbols, or a series of pictures alongside text to enhance understanding. These can be beneficial in supporting understanding and enhancing retention of information, whilst reducing overloading the client with lots of verbal information.  

We work with vulnerable people involved in all different aspects of the criminal justice system, and it is vital that they are able to understand and be involved in every part of their trial. We can assist people from the start of their trial to the end.

For example, we sit with them in the dock, ensuring language used within court and conferences is simple. We make sure they are able to read key documents such as the jury bundle, any questions they have for counsel are noted down and they are able to understand and retain all of the relevant information presented about their case.

If the defendant gives evidence, we will support their communication by monitoring the questions and ensuring that they are in line with the recommendations set out in the report. When necessary, we can intervene to offer suggestions for rephrasing.

Complex language

In criminal court, there is a lot of complex language that can be very difficult for someone with a learning disability to process, understand, and retain.  We always recommend that language is kept simple, however this is not always possible, and that is why we are there to help explain complex terminology and check understanding.

Learning, understanding and a retaining a lot of complex terms can be very cognitively demanding and difficult for someone with a learning disability. Therefore, it is important for intermediaries to use different techniques to help make this process easier and create ways to help understand and remember these complex but important terms.

How we have got creative: Visual aids are a great way to explain complex words, concepts or phrases in a non-verbal way. These can be used to explain a complex phrase alongside a simplified definition, and can act as a memory aid if the client is having difficulties in retaining this later on. For example, mitigating and aggravating factors are commonly mentioned when a defendant is sentenced in criminal court. It is really important that the defendant knows what these terms mean and how they can affect them. This can then be explained using a visual aid:

In this instance, this visual could be shown during their sentencing. Underneath the visual explanation, when ‘mitigating’ factors are raised and ‘aggravating’ factors are discussed, these can be added into the boxes. This would help the defendant understand what things will make their sentence longer or make their sentence shorter.

Attention and concentration

For more serious offenses, trials can last for a long time, requiring the defendant to be in court for long periods of time every day. This can be incredibly difficult for someone with a learning disability, and they will likely find concentration particularly difficult if this involves language which they find difficult to process.

How we have got creative: In supporting an individual’s attention and concentration over long periods of time, we have found creativity and art to be a successful tool. With someone having difficulties sustaining their concentration, the use of a fiddle toy as a sensory activity can greatly support this. Having a physical object as a release of energy can help them remain focussed and attending to the court proceedings better. They can also help support anxiety. This is an essential item for an intermediary’s bag and a great way to help support attention and concentration. Another method we use is providing the defendant with a pen and paper during the proceedings. Having a physical activity such as being able to draw pictures, scribble patterns or even makes notes can help support engagement and assist them to sustain their attention.

Family Court – understanding language

The language used in court is often complex and specific to the court environment, which can make it difficult to follow what is being said. This difficulty is exacerbated for people with learning disabilities, who may use a more limited range of vocabulary in their daily life and be less familiar with the complex vocabulary used in court settings.

Typically an intermediary would provide simple explanations of complex points or vocabulary which are unfamiliar to that person, in real time during the court hearing. This would ordinarily be achieved by sitting next to the client and whispering. These explanations are vital in ensuring the client is able to follow proceedings whilst in court. However, due to social distancing measures in place, this is not always possible in the same way. We need to speak at a louder volume in order for the vulnerable person to hear, which disrupts the court hearing. Therefore, we have to be creative in thinking of ways around this.

How we have got creative: One method many of us have adopted is the use of whiteboards to communicate with the person we are working with. For example, we can draw or write simple definitions on the whiteboard, to show them during the hearing so they have a general understanding in real time. We can then expand on this during an explanation break, where the client can ask any additional questions and we can check their understanding.

This can also be beneficial in creating visual scales, on which the vulnerable person can indicate their level of difficulty with emotional management or their level of understanding.

Remote hearings

Due to the impact of COVID-19, intermediaries are also required to support vulnerable people during remote court hearings. We have been creative in adapting the strategies we use to assist people in these remote settings. For example, by using a separate Zoom meeting link to communicate with the client privately during conferences and sharing our screen. Having this separation from proceedings means that we are able to use the online whiteboard as a visual aid tool to support understanding, rather than solely relying on verbal explanations.

Understanding time and dates

Being able to follow and refer to specific dates within a sequence of events is often a difficulty for people with learning disabilities participating in court proceedings.

Case study – an example of how visual aids assisted a vulnerable person with learning difficulties to understand dates and sequencing concepts:

John* (name has been changed for confidentiality) was involved in family court proceedings. During the hearing, there were various dates spanning a number of years which were relevant to the issues being discussed. Due to his difficulties, John struggled to follow the dates being discussed and would often confuse the order of events. This made it difficult for him to follow the case that was being put against him, as well as providing instructions. The intermediary created a timeline of the key dates which had been identified by his legal team. Due to his learning difficulties, he had limited literacy skills. The intermediary therefore added pictures or symbols to some of the events on the timeline, eg a BBQ or picture of a phone. This assisted John in navigating the sequence of events, and he was able to interact with the visual aid and use it to ask questions or provide instructions. For example, he could indicate if an event happened between Christmas and the house move on the timeline, even if he could not provide a specific date. Without the assistance of the visual aid, he had not been able to provide such clear instructions previously.

A timeline, similar to that pictured above, was able to be agreed by all parties and was used by John to assist him in understanding the evidence of others, provide instructions as well as to support him in understanding the questions put to him during his own evidence.

Collaborative working to support vulnerable people in court


A typical working day for an intermediary involves collaborative working with a range of professionals within the legal system. This post from Kathryn and Jodie talks about how intermediaries work with advocates and interpreters.

As intermediaries, we travel all over the country working on different cases and come in to contact with numerous other professionals on a daily basis. These include solicitors, barristers, judges, court clerks and ushers, as well as professionals from the probation service and youth offending teams.

A typical working day therefore involves collaborative working with a range of professionals within the legal system. We sometimes assist people who also require the services of an interpreter, or the support of an independent advocate. In these instances, it is necessary for us to adapt our practice and consider how we can best work with the interpreter or advocate to ensure that the vulnerable person is supported effectively.

Independent advocate

Independent advocates support vulnerable people in meetings and appointments throughout the court process, as well as in court itself. They listen to the vulnerable person’s point of view, help them think about their options and help them access services. Advocates often work with someone for a long period of time and develop a good rapport and a detailed understanding of their background, circumstances and needs.

Why might someone need an advocate and an intermediary?

There are many parallels between the intermediary and advocate roles, however there are also a number of distinct differences. It is important when someone is supported by both an intermediary and an advocate at court, the two roles are clearly defined. An advocate is likely to assist with emotional support and management, which may involve going for a walk with the vulnerable person or eating lunch together. An advocate may also assist with practical arrangements, such as transport to and from court, and ensuring the vulnerable person comes prepared with everything they will need.

As communication specialists, intermediaries focus on ensuring the vulnerable person is able to understand and effectively participate whilst in court. Intermediaries provide recommendations and updates to the court regarding the vulnerable person’s participation in proceedings and assist the vulnerable person whilst they give evidence. Therefore, someone who is supported by an advocate and an intermediary will have a range of support, both in and out of court.

How do we adapt our practice when working with an advocate?

It is important that the intermediary also has a chance to build rapport with the vulnerable person and explain how their role differs from the role of an advocate. This may take some time, so it is helpful to set aside plenty of time at the start of the hearing for everyone to meet, explain their roles and develop a positive working relationship.

A case study: Chloe

Chloe* had a diagnosis of autism and had been working with an advocate for a significant period of time. Her advocate supported her in attending the appointment for the intermediary assessment. During the meeting, Chloe expressed concern about possibly experiencing a “meltdown” in court due to the stress of the situation.

Chloe was able to provide some detail as to how she would feel if she experienced a meltdown but had difficulty explaining indicators that she was struggling or management strategies. She asked for her advocate’s help in explaining this to the intermediary. Having supported Chloe for a long time, the advocate was able to provide valuable information regarding signs that a meltdown may be imminent and how others can help Chloe when this happens. The detailed information provided by Chloe and her advocate was included in the intermediary report and informed some of the recommendations made to assist Chloe at court, ensuring she could be effectively supported.

A case study: Sarah

Sarah* was a respondent in care proceedings. She was supported by a team of advocates in the months leading up to the court hearing and at the hearing itself. Sarah’s advocates assisted her to travel to and from the hearing each day, as well as spending lunch times with her.

Sarah found the process of attending the hearing and listening to evidence quite overwhelming and at times she became very emotional. Having support from her advocates outside of court hours was hugely beneficial, both in a practical sense and in terms of the emotional support that they were able to provide. As a result, Sarah attended each day of the hearing and remained present for the full court day. Sarah knew that she could take a break and spend time with her advocates when she was having difficulties with emotional management. This stopped her from becoming overwhelmed and allowed her to focus on the evidence and engage with the intermediary’s explanations whilst in the hearing.

When it was Sarah’s turn to give oral evidence, she was very nervous. Her advocate was able to encourage her to enter the court building, and eventually the courtroom itself. During Sarah’s evidence the intermediary assisted her to understand questions and give her answers, and navigate and understand documents within the court bundle. Her advocate remained in her line of sight for reassurance. The intermediary would not have been able to effectively carry out their role at this stage of proceedings if it were not for the support of her advocate in getting her into the courtroom.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Interpreters

An interpreter supports someone at court by translating everything that is said into the person’s primary language in real time. The interpreter takes an oath to translate everything that is said, word for word.

How do we adapt our practice when working with an interpreter?

When working in court or during assessments, it is essential that the intermediary and interpreter understand each other’s roles in order to support the vulnerable person effectively. We need to have a good level of communication with interpreters about what we are asking them to do (e.g. speak at a slow pace) as we rely on them to enable us to assist the vulnerable person.

Sometimes we may require an interpreter to interpret just our simplifications (e.g. during complex expert evidence or legal arguments). As this is significantly different to how they would normally carry out their role, it is important to have a discussion with the interpreter at the outset about the reasons why this is necessary (e.g. to stop the vulnerable person from becoming overloaded). This may need to be raised with the judge and agreed upon before the hearing begins.

To assist with explanations, we typically use visual aids alongside verbal explanations. These visual aids often contain some simple words. We may therefore need to ask an interpreter to assist us in making these visual aids, such as a simplified order of proceedings.

A case study: Mary

Mary* was a respondent in a family court case, who required assistance from an interpreter. When the interpreter arrived, the intermediary was able to have a detailed discussion with her about their respective roles before they began working with Mary. This ensured there was an understanding of what the interpreter and the intermediary were trying to achieve and how they could work together to achieve this.

The interpreter translated the intermediary’s simplified points word for word, without extra explanation. She would inform the intermediary when Mary said she was confused and highlight when a particular word did not translate well in Mary’s primary language. This meant that the intermediary was aware if there was a slight difference in meaning or if it would be better to change the vocabulary and helped to avoid miscommunication

There were also occasions when Mary would say something which did not appear to make sense when translated into English. The interpreter would translate word for word and then advise the intermediary if the phrase is commonly used in Mary’s primary language and explain the meaning. The intermediary was then able to check if this is what Mary had meant when using the phrase to ensure they had understood her answer correctly.

A case study: John

John* was referred for an intermediary assessment and required the assistance of an interpreter during the meeting. Carrying out a thorough assessment of an individual’s communication abilities is imperative to ensuring that they receive the appropriate support at court. The intermediary adapted their assessment materials prior to the meeting, to ensure that all areas of communication could be assessed. For example, they wrote out task instructions so that the interpreter could verbally translate these into John’s primary language. This meant that John did not have to first hear the intermediary give the instructions in English, which may have caused him to become overloaded. As such, he was able to understand and participate in all of the assessment tasks.

Throughout the assessment, John often asked for clarification or for questions to be repeated; at times he struggled to hear what the interpreter was saying. The interpreter translated everything that John said word for word, to ensure that the intermediary was aware when an issue arose. The intermediary was therefore able to establish whether John had not understood the question and required it to be rephrased, or had not heard the question and required the interpreter to speak louder. This assisted them to identify words and grammatical structures that John did not understand and ensured that the intermediary did not misinterpret a request to speak louder as a lack of understanding. 

*Names have been changed for confidentiality

At Communicourt, we are always reflecting on our practice and learning from each other to ensure that we can effectively facilitate communication in court. Working alongside interpreters and advocates is a regular occurrence, so we have established working practices and guidance that ensure we can successfully collaborate with these professionals.