Meeting Needs: Intermediaries in legal conferences

As intermediaries, our working lives are very varied. One day we can be administering assessments, the next we are whispering explanations in court and advising barristers about changes to question style prior to cross-examination. One part of our job that is a little less well-known is assisting during conferences.

As any time-poor solicitor will know, there is a mountain of preparation to undertake before a case actually gets to court. Information gathering sessions must take place to help solicitors build the case, defendants and respondents have to tell the court what they think of certain evidence, advocates will need to provide legal advice and take instructions. Conferences also need to take place during court hearings themselves, for example, to allow counsel to take instructions on a new issue which has arisen, or to explain a judges’ ruling.

  • For quick tips to help you support a client with communication difficulties in conference, download our two-page guide from The Access Brief, a library of free resources for legal professionals, developed by experienced intermediaries.

Communication difficulties in conferences

These conferences can be every bit as challenging for individuals with communication needs as formal court hearings. Conferences often place considerable demands upon someone’s ability to understand verbal information, express themselves clearly, manage their emotions and maintain attention. There may be complex legal concepts to explain, emotive information to discuss, lengthy documents to review and large volumes of evidence to explore.

In many cases, an individual’s ability to understand and communicate clearly in conferences preceding the start of a trial is even more critical than their understanding in a court hearing. When accounts, information and instructions are provided clearly, the risk of miscommunication is minimised, and clients are more likely to understand the process and have realistic expectations of the proceedings. Legal representatives, meanwhile, are more likely to be able to advocate clearly for their client. This often improves the smooth-running of proceedings, reducing adjournments, issues in working relationships and last-minute changes in instructions.

Intermediaries in conferences

Defendants and respondents with communication difficulties often benefit from having an intermediary present in conferences. This case study from my own practice is an illustration of this:

Case study 1: I assisted a father involved in care proceedings who had attended a number of conferences with his solicitor in advance of a fact find hearing without an intermediary present. The solicitor believed they had an excellent rapport and a good understanding of each other. When the case got to court however, it was clear that the respondent’s position statement and his response to threshold were inaccurate. He actively and adamantly denied a number of things he had previously agreed.

For this reason, the judge adjourned the case and ruled a conference with an intermediary must take place before the next hearing. He was an approachable judge, but even he was displeased that considerable time had been lost and that serious misunderstandings had arisen.  

On the day of the conference, it became clear where the communication breakdown had occurred. The solicitor had read the threshold to his client as it was written, page by page. The respondent had difficulty understanding more complicated vocabulary (e.g. “compliance” and “disengaged”) and remembering large chunks of information. As such, he had simply agreed to everything the solicitor read out. I went through the threshold step-by-step with him, simplifying each point as I went. With this support, he was able to give precise instructions, including telling us when dates were just a couple of days’ off. As a result, his legal team gained a much clearer and more coherent response from him.

The solicitor was a little disheartened after the respondent left, telling me she had thought they got along really well. I explained that it was clear that they did have a good rapport, but often communication difficulties cannot be overcome with positive rapport alone. In fact, it can be particularly hard to recognise communication needs in everyday conversation (especially if an individual has good social communication skills).

An intermediary’s perspective

Many intermediaries I have spoken to have said they enjoy assisting at conferences. The setting is more informal than court and we don’t feel quite so disruptive when intervention is required. The service user is often more relaxed and, when they have someone there to help them understand, they are more likely to seek that help in the informal environment of a conference than under the weight of a court hearing.

In conferences, we often have the opportunity to try a wider range of strategies to assist a service user’s understanding; from visual aids to interactive tasks. This allows intermediaries to develop the most effective possible working relationship with a service user before a hearing takes place.

Case study 2: One service user I worked with was adamant that she wanted to take her case in a certain direction. The solicitor was worried that the client hadn’t understood the options clearly, and I could understand why. The service user would listen to the solicitor’s advice and then immediately restate her previous view. This difficulty appeared to relate to the hypothetical nature of the discussion (e.g., if we do this, then this might happen, so we can ask for this). This required her to hold lots of abstract verbal information in mind and was hard to follow. To assist, I drew a flow chart detailing all the options and possible outcomes. The service user began to ask questions about each route. A visual representation helped her to understand and retain the different options, then weigh the potential benefits and downsides of each. In response, the service user changed her approach slightly and agreed that the new approach was more child-focussed.

Booking an intermediary for a conference

Even when solicitors have a positive rapport with their clients, an intermediary can support effective communication in conferences, and this often has a knock-on positive effect in court too. But how do you go about booking an intermediary for a conference?

Firstly, you will need funding:

  • In family court, HMCTS can fund a conference. In some cases, a court may be unwilling to provide funding, and Legal Aid or the Local Authority may need to be approached to fund intermediary provision.

  • In criminal proceedings, Legal Aid typically fund conferences.

If your client has not yet had an intermediary assessment, this will need to be arranged before a conference with an intermediary can be booked. If the ensuing intermediary report recommend an intermediary, arrangements can be made for an intermediary to attend conferences with your client.  

Once the assessment is complete and the report has been sent to the solicitors, a booking for the relevant dates can be made through Communicourt’s online portal. You will then receive a booking form that needs to be filled out and signed by court personnel (family court) or the solicitor (criminal court). This then needs to be returned to Communicourt and an intermediary will be allocated.

The legal process in its entirety is confusing and hard to understand for any non-legal professional. Many people with communication difficulties need help at every stage, including in legal conferences, in order to make informed decisions and to participate as fully as possible.

For more information about intermediary assistance in legal conferences, or for advice on funding and booking an intermediary for a conference, please contact the Communicourt bookings team.

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Image credit: Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash