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.