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.


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.