My Intermediary Week: Laura

Have you ever wondered what a ‘typical’ working week looks like for an intermediary? To give you a glimpse into the intermediary world, Laura has shared her experience of a final hearing at Newcastle Family Court, where she assisted a service user named Mandy*. 

*Names, locations, case details and other identifying information have been changed

A bit of background…  

I first met Mandy before her final hearing, in fact, I was the assessor who met with Mandy and recommended that she was assisted by an intermediary throughout her case. The assessment was carried out with the assistance of an interpreter, as English wasn’t Mandy’s first language.  

The assessment 

During her intermediary assessment, I noted Mandy had difficulty in a number of communication domains, which would likely affect her engagement and participation in court proceedings. For example, she had difficulties with concentration, she often digressed at length from the topic of conversation to discuss unrelated topics, and she did not always recognise when she needed a break. I also observed her to have literacy difficulties, limited understanding of court vocabulary and limited understanding of less commonly used words in general.  

The assessment took three hours. Working with an interpreter always requires more time, as more communication is required to share information. In addition, Mandy often moved away from the topic at hand, to discuss unrelated matters at length. She required support to refocus upon the current subject. These two factors meant that the assessment tasks were not all completed within our three-hour meeting. For this reason, I carried out the remaining assessment task at court (just prior to the Case Management Hearing).  

Preliminary hearings 

I assisted Mandy at a Case Management Hearing and then returned for the Issues Resolutions Hearing, where I was able to assist the court during a short Ground Rules Hearing. This step is to ensure that measures are put into place and agreed to ensure Mandy has a fair trial.  

Thanks to our regular encounters, Mandy became comfortable around me, and we were able to build a good rapport in advance of the Final Hearing. I was pleased I was assigned to assist her during her Final Hearing as I already knew her case and understood her communication needs well.  

The final hearing 

The final hearing started off as normal. I was required to attend court at 9am. Luckily, it was only a short train trip for me as I am already based in the local area. This was a case where the Local Authority was seeking a care order for the children (foster care)*. The guardian agreed with the Local Authority’s proposals. Mandy opposed the social worker’s plans and wanted her children back in her care. 

On the first day, we listened to the current social worker give evidence. On the second day, we heard from the social worker who completed Mandy’s parenting assessment.  

Whilst in court and conferences, I worked with Mandy to ensure she understood the evidence. She had difficulty understanding legal terminology, following lengthy legal discussions and understanding written information. I used strategies including visual aids, simplifying information, repeating key points and asking her to repeat what she understood in her own words (to check her understanding). These strategies were helpful in this case. After discussion with the court, I also asked the interpreter not to directly translate everything that was being said as this would overload and confuse Mandy. Instead, I provided simple explanations throughout, which were then interpreted to Mandy. 

Evidence from the professionals began to paint a picture which suggested that Mandy should have been provided with additional support to learn parenting skills (as recommended in the parenting assessment), which had not been provided. This appeared to be the theme of the case and it was becoming a concern for both Mandy’s barrister and the guardian. 

Unfortunately, the next day was adjourned due to one of the social workers having health issues*. I went back home on this day and used it as an admin day (which included updating case notes and replying to emails). I also worked on one of my targets. This target was on researching the effects of strokes upon communication, specifically dysarthria (slurred or unclear speech), and creating an information sheet that included some strategies intermediaries can use when working with individuals who are affected by this condition.  

A change in direction 

After listening to more witnesses from the Local Authority, the guardian asked the Local Authority to reconsider their position. This meant that, if the Local Authority took the guardian’s suggestion, they would have to do a new parenting assessment with Mandy, providing her with the right support and education as part of that process. Proceedings would be adjourned until this work had been undertaken. 

The next day, the Local Authority decided that Mandy should be re-assessed and they were no longer asking for a care order. Court was then adjourned to allow the Local Authority to make enquiries about how the assessment would be carried out.  

After the hearing 

That afternoon, I spent time with Mandy, her barrister, and the interpreter. Due to her learning difficulties and language barrier, I decided it would be a good idea to construct a visual aid to help her during contact sessions.  

I created a document with pictures of healthy food, a parent hugging their child, game boards etc. The purpose of this was to give a printed version to Mandy to look at before contact sessions, to remind her of what to do and what to bring. Through working with the interpreter, we were able to come up with simple words we could put below each picture in Mandy’s first language, so Mandy had some extra context. Mandy was really happy with this resource and was able to clearly explain what to do at contact, when her understanding was checked.  

On the final day, we came back to court for a short hearing which confirmed the local authority plans for Mandy’s re-assessment.  

Final thoughts 

As an intermediary, there’s no such thing as ‘typical’ day or week.  Sometimes we may work with service users we have previously assisted and other times we meet new ones. Everyone we work with has differing communication strengths and needs. As intermediaries, it’s important to recognise this and think of ways to improve their participation and communication.   

In my case, I enjoyed working with Mandy at different stages – from the assessment stage to the Issues Resolution Hearings, down to the Final Hearing. I managed to build a good rapport with her, which helped her to become more comfortable around me, engage well with my strategies and allowed me to recognise how to better assist her.  

I was also able to implement effective strategies to work with the interpreter, without overloading Mandy. Approaches like discussing the boundaries of our overlapping roles (at the outset of proceedings) and the importance of verbatim translation of intermediary simplifications, helped to ensure Mandy’s needs were being met throughout.  

Image of a young boy looking sad in front of a blackboard featuring numbers

Dyscalculia: Why numbers matter in communication

3rd March 2023 is Dyscalculia Awareness Day. To mark the occassion, we’ve explored this specific learning difficulty, shared some personal experiences of dyscalculia and considered how dyscalculia can impact court users during legal proceedings. Legal professionals who would like learn more about assisting court users who have numeracy difficulties can download a free guide from The Access Brief.

What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty, which is lifelong. The DSM-5 defines it as:

 ‘Difficulties in production or comprehension of quantities, numerical symbols, or basic arithmetic operations that are not consistent with the person’s chronological age, educational opportunities, or intellectual abilities.’

The British Dyslexia Association states:

‘Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics.’

In the past, dyscalculia was sometimes referred to as “number blindness”. In contemporary times, it’s often casually described as “like dyslexia for numbers”, but this can be misleading as they are separate conditions.

Just as dyslexia’s impact stretches beyond its effects upon reading, dyscalculia can affect people in ways that we may not immediately think of.

No two people with dyscalculia are the same, but areas of difficulty can include:

  • Counting, backwards and forwards
  • Connecting a number to the quantity it represents (e.g., the number “2” to two apples)
  • Using time concepts (e.g., planning travel times or considering how long a task will take).
  • Remembering numbers, such as times, dates, phone numbers, what area of the car park you are in, the number of your hotel room.
  • Doing mental arithmetic (people may prefer to work things out on paper or count on fingers).
  • Reading the time from analogue and/or digital clocks.
  • Recognising patterns and sequences.
  • Recalling mathematical processes, even after learning them several times.
  • Recalling mathematical facts e.g. times tables.
  • Handling money e.g. knowing the total cost of your shopping basket or working out change.
  • Distance and spatial issues, such as map reading, telling left from right, following directions.
  • Poor visual and spatial orientation.

Prevalence and co-morbidities

An estimated 3-6% of people have dyscalculia, with a much great number having maths learning difficulties to a lesser degree.

Like many learning difficulties, dyscalculia rarely occurs in isolation. 11% of people with ADHD have dyscalculia, and it often occurs alongside dyslexia or dyspraxia.

A visual depiction of statistics showing that 3-6% of people have dyscalculia and 11% of people with ADHD have dyscalculia

Similar difficulties can also onset later in life, due to conditions such as a brain injury or stroke. This is called acalculia.


Dyscalculia appears under the “specific learning disorder” (SLD) section in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5). There’s no set test for dyscalculia. A psychologist may evaluate using academic history, personal accounts and numeracy assessments.

In the UK, there’s no standardised pathway for obtaining a diagnosis, particularly for adults. This means that many people with these difficulties will never be told they have dyscalculia, unless they pursue a diagnosis privately. Various ‘screeners’ are available, many for a fee, that can give an indication of whether dyscalculia is ‘likely’, though these tools cannot diagnose.

‘Maths Anxiety’

Often people don’t know that they have dyscalculia but are very aware of things that they find difficult, with no explanation for these difficulties. This can cause anxiety, which in turn can make people feel embarrassed and avoidant of certain tasks, or of asking for help.

People may feel embarrassed about using strategies such as counting on fingers or worry that they are holding others up when they need time to write things down or ask questions.

In education, it’s almost an accepted norm to say, ‘I hate maths’, but the dread of numeracy can creep into other subjects too, particularly as people get older and academic study becomes more nuanced. For example, what is physics, if not science maths? Chemistry is surely the maths that makes things go boom. Higher level education often relies on an ability to extract meaning from journal articles and research, where statistics, percentages, confidence intervals, standard deviations and ratios are commonplace.

Personal experience

Communicourt intermediary, Rory, has experienced persistent difficulties relating to numbers. He has kindly shared his personal experience of these difficulties:

“For me, I’ve taken the free screeners and been unsurprised by their indication that I may have dyscalculia. It sits alongside my being diagnosed with ADHD last year and would explain a lot of the difficult and anxiety-written experiences with maths and numbers that populated my education.

I have struggled with maths for as long as I can remember. Despite being labelled ‘gifted and talented’ in other subjects, I felt totally and stressfully behind in maths lessons. The phrases ‘You just think you can’t’ and ‘If you could just apply yourself’ came up a lot from well-meaning teachers and family members

Labels and diagnoses are not for everyone, but for me the explanation helps.

I am, regardless of a label, an adult who only knows the 5 times table (if given time to recite it whilst counting on my fingers).

I only know two phone numbers and two PIN numbers, and if I learn more, I think one may well fall out.

I wasn’t confident with telling the time on analogue or 24-hour clocks until I was in my teens.

I had 9 years of very patient maths tutoring and, every week, I turned up having forgotten all the processes I had learnt the previous week. (And the 450 weeks before that… Sorry, Mr K.)

I can listen to a personal finance podcast and understand the concept of a mortgage, or watch a (dozen) videos explaining what a standard deviation is, but once I try and apply that concept to actual numbers, it all crumbles away.

And very quickly, this becomes a list of things I’m not good at. And that then becomes a list of things I avoid doing in front of others, or at all. BUT, if I can admit that I find it difficult, I can spend my energy on working around that difficulty instead of beating myself up over it.

For example, If I’m given a code for a door at court or locker at a prison, the person who gives to me is going to have to wait while I dig out my trusty Post-Its or notes app and write it down. If I ask a service user for their date of birth, you can bet I’ll be heading straight for my trusty date calculator website to check if the age they gave was correct. I photograph the number on my hotel door before I leave. I’ve been blessed with ten fingers, and it would be rude not to use them for every counting opportunity that I can.

It’s not a flawless system. More than once I’ve diligently reviewed the number of the card I’m using for an online transaction and presently been contacted by the finance team to ask if I intended to buy my fancy pants on my company card (Sorry, Pam).

I still avoid certain tasks. I steer clear of credit cards, loans and investments because I haven’t got the foggiest idea how they work. If I can, I will pay something in a lump sum rather than instalments, to avoid any more numbers to keep track of. I have to trust that when my partner says, ‘This how much your share of the rent and bills comes to’, he’s telling the truth. (Hopefully he is and is not just saving for an early retirement at my expense. He is a spreadsheet man, and those things could say ‘Formula to steal all Rory’s money’ and I wouldn’t know…)”.

Dyscalculia in court proceedings

The intermediary role is generally associated with the understanding of words and language, and the understanding of numbers is not something that is typically considered when the court requests an intermediary assessment. However, time and number concepts are used in many areas of life and communication, and therefore difficulty with these concepts can impact court users’ participation in proceedings too.

For example:

  • Recalling and referring to dates is common in both written and oral evidence.
  • Detailed timelines and chronologies are often used in Crown court cases.
  • Navigating paperwork and court bundles e.g. ‘Page C653’ or ‘Paragraph 12.25’.
  • Expert reports often refer to percentages, percentiles, scores and ranges.
  • Number concepts occur in everyday speech e.g. “John missed a third of his classes” or “Mr Jones was late to 75% of the appointments”.
  • Difficulty with reading and estimating time can make planning journeys to court stressful, impacting service users’ punctuality and emotional state on arrival.
  • Knowing that being told to come back at “twenty to four” means they have to be back when their mobile phone shows 15:40.
  • Embarrassment or negative feelings about numeracy difficulties can lead to court users feeling anxious or trying to mask their difficulties. This can have a knock-on impact on attention, rapport-building and emotional regulation.

Communicourt intermediary assessments often look at a court user’s grasp of time and number concepts, and explore existing and potential strategies to assist each individual’s difficulties in the context of legal proceedings.

For more information on numeracy difficulties (and how legal professionals can assist court users with this area of difficulty) download our free guide on The Access Brief.

What are Special Measures?

What are special measures and when are they implemented in legal proceedings? Intermediary Georgia Fleming explores the adjustments family and criminal courts can make to improve access to justice for court users with communication difficulties.

Photo by Mahosadha Ong on Unsplash

When talking about “special measures” in court, most people immediately think about large screens concealing witnesses and children giving evidence via video link. Whilst those strategies are perhaps the most well-known, they are not the only measures that we, as intermediaries, recommend to improve an individual’s participation in legal proceedings.

In simple terms, special measures are adjustments to typical court practices, which are made to help court users (particularly vulnerable witnesses and family court respondents with communication needs) participate fully in court proceedings. Special measures are sometimes also available to defendants with identified needs.

Special measures can vary whether you are in a family court or a criminal court. It is our job, as intermediaries, to look at a service user’s communication profile and determine what strategies or measures would assist to ensure that they can engage fully in proceedings, in the relevant setting. It’s also important to note that special measures can be implemented at any stage of proceedings, they are not restricted to during a court user’s evidence.

In this blog post, we will be looking at special measures in courts and how they can assist service users. We will also explore some of the different ways that we, as intermediaries, ensure best participation and engagement in court, including our role in recommending special measures to the court, following intermediary assessment of the individual concerned.

Special Measures and Criminal Court

Special measures in criminal court were first introduced in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA).  This act outlined a range of measures that can be applied to facilitate the gathering and giving of evidence by vulnerable and intimidated witnesses.

Not everybody can ask for special measures, however. In court, a witness or defendant may request special measures if:

  • They are under the age of 18
  • They have a mental health difficulty
  • They have a learning disability
  • They have a physical disability
  • They are an intimidated witness
  • They are a victim of a serious crime
  • Or a combination of the above

Just because a person is eligible, does not mean the court will grant special measures. The court has to be sure that the use of special measures will assist defendant or witness to participate fully in proceedings and give their “best evidence”.

Special Measures and Family Court

The guidelines regarding special measures in family court are similar. Special measures are granted for “vulnerable” individuals in family court proceedings under the Family Procedures Rules 2010A. The 2010 Family Procedures Rules (FPRs) were updated in 2017 to ensure that vulnerable individuals were treated more fairly in family court. Previous reports had suggested that the family justice system lagged behind the criminal justice system in its procedures protecting vulnerable individuals. The updated FPR sets out more clearly what constitutes a vulnerable individual and notes that it is imperative that individuals who may be vulnerable are identified as early as possible in the court process. The updated FPR recognises that there are several ways in which an individual might be considered vulnerable. Vulnerabilities may relate to:

  • the social and cultural background and ethnic origins of the party or witness
  • the domestic circumstances or religious beliefs of the party or witness
  • the ability of the party to understand proceedings, make informed decisions and give instructions.

The criteria for special measures in criminal court (above) also apply to family proceedings, e.g., age, mental health difficulty, learning difficulties etc.

Special measures are not restricted to respondents in a family case, but also apply to intervenors, witnesses and child witnesses who are involved. The FPR also state that a Ground Rules Hearing is essential to ensure fairness throughout the trial. The Ground Rules Hearing is also a great opportunity for us intermediaries to speak to the court and make our recommendations.

Examples of Special Measures

There are many examples of special measures which can be implemented in court. Such as:

  • Intermediary assistance – The assistance of an intermediary during a trial or a family court hearing is an example of a special measure. The role of an intermediary is to facilitate communication between the courts and the service user. This involves the intermediary assessing someone’s communication profile and considering different strategies which can assist them with the court process, then implementing these strategies to support the service user’s understanding, engagement and participation.

  • Screens – These can be used so that a witness is only seen by the barristers, the judge and the jury (if in criminal court). This can help alleviate anxiety and help the witness to better engage in proceedings. Anxiety can impact an individual’s participation and concentration in court, as well as their ability to focus and answer questions accurately when giving evidence. Moreover, screens can help shield a witness so that they do not have to see certain people in court, which can help manage anxiety levels and improve their engagement.

  • Live link – This enables the individual to give evidence during the trial or hearing from outside the court through a video-link to the courtroom. This can take place from different locations, such as in a video-link room at court, in the individual’s house or from their solicitor’s office.  

  • Evidence given in private – (Criminal court only) This involves excluding members of the public and sometimes even the press from the courtroom during an individual’s evidence. Again, this helps to ensure “best evidence” as well as best possible engagement.

  • The removal of wigs and gowns by judges and barristers – (Criminal court only – N.B. legal professionals do not wear wings and gowns in Youth Court). This measure can help support the emotional management of a court user who may find these accessories intimidating, confusing, distracting and/or anxiety-inducing.  

  • Pre-recorded interview – This is usually permitted for those who are vulnerable or who would not be able to give their “best evidence” in person. The practice allows them to record their evidence in advance, with questions put to them in an agreed manner by an agreed individual. This removes the need for them to give live evidence during proceedings.

What are the advantages to Special Measures?

There are many advantages to having special measures. In some cases, their implementation can completely transform the way in which a person participates in legal proceedings and can help them to give evidence to the best of their ability.

Without special measures, the fairness of a court case can change drastically. For example, if a defendant who suffers from severe anxiety is denied the use of a screen in court, it is likely that their evidence will be seriously affected. They may inadvertently forget key information, have difficulty accurately processing questions put to them, struggle to challenge incorrect assertions put to them or misremember important facts, all due to the effect of their anxiety on giving evidence in front of a courtroom and public gallery. Adaptations, such as the use of a screen or live-link, can allow the defendant to better manage their anxiety and give their best possible evidence to the court (which benefits justice as a whole).

Case Study: 17 year old defendant in Crown Court

I once attended Crown Court to assist a young defendant called Jamie [false name]. We met in the cells with his barrister, and it was clear from the offset that he was extremely nervous. He was restless in his seat, fidgeting with his hands and swinging his feet.  Having read his intermediary report (which noted his diagnosis of ADHD), I was expecting him to present in this way.

He made little eye contact, and his breathing was rapid. Whilst making superficial conversation, he turned to me and said, “You know what scares me the most? The stuff they wear. I’ve seen it on TV”. I asked what he meant, and he replied, “The stuff they put on their heads and the black gowns. Feel like I can’t look at them”. This is not uncommon. For many people, court is daunting, however as a young defendant, you are under particular pressure, due to your age and the unfamiliarity of your surroundings.

I began thinking about ways to make the process easier for him. The trouble is, court is never easy nor straightforward, regardless of individual difficulties. However, due to his age, and particularly his ADHD diagnosis, the trial was going to be especially difficult for Jamie. After 30 minutes in a pre-trial conference with his legal team, it was evident that he was fatigued and disengaged. I could only imagine how he would feel after a full day in court.

In preparing a list of suggested Ground Rules, we always read the intermediary report whilst also considering our own experience of working with the service user. From my meeting with Jamie, I already knew the type of special measures I would recommend in the Ground Rules Hearing. In court, I outlined Jamie’s communication difficulties and recommended the following measures (among others):

  • Gowns and caps to be removed in the courtroom to help minimise Jamie’s anxiety and support his emotional management.
  • All counsel to refer to Jamie by his first name, to aid his engagement throughout proceedings.
  • Jamie to be permitted to use a fidget aid, both in the dock and whilst giving evidence, to assist his concentration.

The judge immediately approved all these measures. When I informed Jamie of this, his demeanour completely changed. It was like a weight had been lifted from him. Just like that, his outlook on the whole trial had transformed. He presented as being more relaxed and focused. It also improved my rapport with Jamie. He began to ask more questions and would let me know if he didn’t understand something. His presentation at the end of the trial was completely different from the beginning, which is testament to the special measures put in place to help his participation.

Unusual special measures

While some special measures are widely recognised and applied, others require greater creativity or may be more unusual. They may be bespoke, in response to the specific court user’s individual needs and difficulties. For example:

  • Altering the lighting in the courtroom, if a person has sensory sensitivities which can impair attention or adversely impact emotional management.

  • Allowing the individual to attend court in clothing (or with a particular item) which assists their emotional regulation (for example, I once assisted an autistic person whose slippers were a special sensory item, which considerably aided his emotional regulation).  

  • Allowing the individual’s therapy animal in the courtroom to alleviate anxiety.

As intermediaries, we are always grateful to the court for considering and permitting measures we recommend. Although they can be effortful to implement, these special measures can be vital in ensuring an individual is able to participate as effectively as possible in proceedings. 

To learn more about special measures, Ground Rules Hearings and the intermediary role, visit The Access Brief, a free library of resources, developed by intermediaries for legal professionals. Here you will also find free, bite-sized guides to assisting court users who have a range of diagnoses and common communication difficulties.

Intermediaries asked ChatGPT to simplify complex legal information

From writing your dissertation to creating a snappy business tagline, ChatGPT is the latest piece of Artificial Intelligence poised to steal your job. Created by Open AI, the tech allows users to ‘chat’ with its system and to ask it to complete an endless range of text-based tasks, from producing copy for a website, to writing poems:

Limerick written by ChatGPT

According to Business Insider, “Chat bots like GPT are powered by large amounts of data and computing techniques to make predictions about stringing words together in a meaningful way. They not only tap into a vast amount vocabulary and information, but also understand words in context. This helps them mimic speech patterns while dispatching an encyclopedic knowledge”.

Intermediaries vs. AI

So, how do ChatGPT’s simplification skills stack up, and could the intermediaries of the future be generated by artificial intelligence? We decided to put it to the test.

Before we put the bot through its paces, it’s important to remember that every person Communicourt supports is unique, with their own, individual profile of communication strengths and difficulties. Intermediaries carefully assess each person’s communication skills, producing bespoke intermediary reports which recommend specific adjustments and strategies to improve the individual’s participation in legal proceedings.

The intermediary role is a person-centred role, which relies heavily on human connection. Rapport building, exploring strategies creatively and responding empathetically to service user needs are core intermediary skills. It is difficult to imagine artificial intelligence replicating these skills any decade soon.

However, with a suite of endlessly adaptable tools behind the scenes, it is theoretically possible to ‘teach’ tools like ChatGPT to explain legal proceedings using a range of different approaches (simplified vocabulary, defining complex terms, using analogy, using ‘flow charts’, using short sentences, using bullet points etc.) which could assist a range of court users with diverse communication needs.

Let battle commence…

To test out the tech, we asked both a Communicourt intermediary and ChatGPT to complete some short simplification tasks. Here are the results:

Round 1: An extract from a court order

Original: All parties must immediately inform the allocated judge as soon as they become aware that any direction given by the court cannot be complied with and to seek in advance an extension of time to comply. In the event that a party fails to comply with directions and/or fails to attend any hearing without good reason the court may make final orders including care orders and placement orders at that hearing.

ChatGPT simplification: All parties must tell the judge if they can’t follow a court order and ask for more time. If they don’t follow the order or show up to a hearing without a good reason, the court may make final orders (decisions) about care and placement.

Intermediary simplification:

Everyone in the case must tell the judge if there are any problems with:

  • Finishing the parenting assessment by 10th February 2023.
  • Getting Dr [NAME] to write down his opinion by 10th February 2023.
  • Doing the drug test by 14th February 2023.

If there are any problems, they must tell the judge and ask for more time.

The judge can make a final decision at the next hearing, even if:

  • You don’t do the tasks the court asked you to do (like the drug test).
  • You don’t come to the next hearing without a good reason.

The judge’s final decision could be:

  • Making a care order (deciding CHILD can’t live with you).
  • Making a placement order (deciding social services can look for a new family for CHILD).

*(invented examples for context).

Round 2: Simplification of court concepts – Threshold

ChatGPT simplifications:

Request: Explain “threshold” in care proceedings in simple terms:

Threshold in care proceedings is a legal term used to describe the level of harm or risk of harm that must be met before the court can make an order taking a child into care. It is based on the principle that it is only in exceptional circumstances that a court should interfere with a family’s right to look after their own children.

Request: Use a flow chart to explain “threshold” in care proceedings in simple terms:

Start: Is there evidence of significant harm to the child?

Yes:→ Proceed to court
No:→ End

Proceed to court
Are there any other factors that suggest the child is at risk of significant harm?

Yes:→ Court will consider threshold criteria
No:→ End
Court will consider threshold criteria.
Does the court believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm if no action is taken?

Yes:→ Court will make a care order
No:→ End

Intermediary simplification:

  • Threshold is a word used at family court.
  • It means that the parents* have ‘crossed a line’ and put their child at risk.
  • Social services have to prove to the judge that you have ‘crossed a line’ and put Millie at risk.
  • If the judge believes them, she could decide that Millie can’t live with you anymore.

These are the things social services say ‘crossed a line’ and put Millie at risk:

*(invented examples for context).

Round 3: Simplification of complex concepts – Joint Enterprise

Request: Explain joint enterprise to a person with learning difficulties

Joint enterprise is when two or more people work together to commit a crime. It means that each person involved in the crime is responsible for the actions of the other people involved. For example, if two people rob a bank together, they are both responsible for the robbery even if one person did not actually do anything.

Intermediary simplification:

Joint enterprise is used when two or more people do a crime together.

It means you can be guilty of a crime, even when you didn’t do it yourself.

This is why the police say you stole Kate’s phone*:

  • You didn’t touch the phone or talk to Kate.
  • But you were there when John threatened Kate and took her phone.
  • Your texts show that you knew what John was going to do.
  • You didn’t try to stop him.
  • Because you were standing next to John, Kate felt more scared (there were two of you).
  • This helped John to steal her phone.

This means that the jury can decide you are both guilty of stealing the phone.

*(invented examples for context).

And the winner is…

ChatGPT offered some good, rapid simplification of some concepts and legal documents. However, many lower-frequency words (e.g. “significant harm” and “final order”) and longer sentence structures still appeared in the bot’s simplifications (although it is possible to further refine the app’s output).

However, for time-strapped solicitors working with a client who has difficulty reading complex court documents with understanding (and do not have an intermediary), this technology is certainly something which could prove helpful in future. Of course, AI-simplified documents would require careful review before provision to clients, however, the technology could potentially assist solicitors to provide more accessible court documents to their clients, without needing to simplify the text themselves.

One important aspect of simplification (making concepts, vocabulary and information relevant and concrete for the service user) was particularly absent from the simplifications offered by artificial intelligence. A human intermediary can quickly assimilate information about a case, apply it to their understanding of court concepts and develop simplifications which are accessible for each individual court user in their specific case – all while taking into consideration a very wide range of factors (the environment of the explanation, the service user’s response to intermediary assistance, their emotional regulation, their attention, their communication difficulties and strategies which assist them).

AI certainly has the capacity to eventually attune its output depending on a wide range of variables (like those listed above). However, human connection, responsiveness and adaptability lie at the heart of the intermediary role. So, don’t expect IntermediaryBot3000 to be taking the affirmation in the courtroom any time soon.  

Learn more about the intermediary role

To learn more about simplification or other aspects of the intermediary role, visit The Access Brief (our free library of resources for legal professionals working with a client who has communication needs). You could also tune into the Accessing Justice Podcast to listen to discussions about ensuring equal access to justice for court users with a wide range of diagnoses and difficulties.

Man sitting outside with his head in his hands

How does stress impact court communication?

International Stress Awareness Week is a chance to explore ways to recognise, manage and reduce stress. Stress is a normal part of life but, in some cases, it can have a profoundly negative impact, resulting in feelings of hopelessness and an inability to cope. Although acute manifestations of stress can be a prompt which forces us to look more closely at the causes of stress in our lives, stress at any level should not be ignored, as its effects can be low-level but cumulative.

This post will outline what stress actually is, how it can affect individuals, how it can impact communication and how it can be managed in the courtroom to minimise its impact on court users.

Stress at court

There are no two ways about it – court is stressful. It’s often an unfamiliar and strange environment, where difficult topics with serious consequences are discussed and emotions understandably run high. To ensure effective participation, it is essential that defendants, respondents, appellants and other court users understand their case and are able to articulate their position. Unfortunately, stress often significantly impacts a person’s ability to communicate.

Our role, as intermediaries, is to provide communication support for court users who have identified communication needs, but it is important to remember that stress can negatively affect anyone’s communication skills. For court users with existing communication difficulties, however, the impact of stress can be magnified and could further hinder their ability to communicate effectively during proceedings.

What is stress?

Stress is how we react to something that is currently happening, it often makes us feel ‘under pressure’ and usually occurs when we feel we cannot control a situation. It can lead someone to feel anxious, irritable, confused or overwhelmed.

Stress can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as muscle tightness, rapid breathing, a flushed face and an increased heart rate. But it can also affect mental health and someone’s ability to communicate, as they may have racing thoughts making it difficult to process information and stay focused.

How does stress affect communication?

When we experience heightened stress, there is likely to be a negative impact on our communication skills. Many people have a ‘rabbit in the headlight’ type experience which can lead to confusion. Someone who is stressed may become frustrated more easily and, when emotions are heightened, an individual may find it challenging to communicate, both in terms of expressing themselves and in terms of their understanding.

People respond to stress in different ways; some people may decide to disengage from communication when feeling high levels of stress. This can create a barrier between the individual and the help and support they may have otherwise benefitted from. In a legal setting, someone feeling stressed may stop engaging with their solicitor or may even not turn up to court. When feeling stressed, people may have a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’ or ‘faun’ response (learn more about these presentations here) and it’s important to remember that everyone will respond to stress differently. Additionally, if someone is feeling stressed, they are more likely to miss information as their ability to concentrate will be affected. If someone has not taken in and retained information, they may struggle to communicate, as they may not have understood the key points of the discussion.

Managing stress in the courtroom

The courtroom is a stressful environment and therefore effective communication can be challenging to achieve. However, in this setting, clear communication is vital.  It is important that everyone has the opportunity to explain their side of the story and understand the position and evidence of others involved in the case.   

In the courtroom, there will be some stress-inducing factors which simply can’t be alleviated. However, it’s important to identify the things that are within the court’s control, which can be addressed.

There are a number of ways to try to reduce stress within the formal court environment:

  1. Introductions
    Introductions can go a long way to helping someone feel more at ease. A court user is often met with lots of new faces on their first day at a trial or hearing. In many cases, they have never even met their barrister face-to-face before. It is helpful when a representative from each party (e.g., the prosecution barrister or counsel for the Local Authority) introduces themselves to the court user prior to the case commencing. This helps the individual to feel more comfortable and also helps their understanding once in court, as they know who is speaking on behalf of whom.

  2. Familiarisation visits
    A quick visit to the courtroom to have a look around, see where everyone will be sitting and get a general ‘feel’ for the room can really help an individual feel less stressed before their trial or hearing begins.

  3. Fidget objects
    Fidget objects are great tools to help someone stay focused and calm, even in times of stress. This could be anything from a tangle toy, stress ball or even a pen and paper to doodle with. An intermediary can provide an appropriate tool to aid emotional regulation and ability to attend to the proceedings.

  4. Book a conference room
    Courts are busy places, often it can be hard to find a quiet space to take a breather and gather thoughts. If a conference room can be booked within the court building, this can help reduce the stress of searching for a space to have a private discussion. It can additionally provide a place to rest before returning to the courtroom, the court user may want to do some puzzles or listen to music to ‘take a break’ from thinking about emotive topics. Additionally, it can be useful to have a room booked to avoid bumping into other parties in the case, which can significantly increase stress in certain cases.

  5. Practice in the witness box
    Giving evidence is often the part of proceedings which court users are most stressed about – and understandably so. They are expected to stand in court, in front of strangers, and answer questions for a significant period of time (days in some cases).

    A defendant in a criminal court must choose whether they wish to answer questions. If they are feeling immense stress, a flight or fight response may be triggered. The stress associated with giving evidence in court may lead someone to avoid giving evidence, despite the negative impact it could have for their case. Stress-minimising steps should be taken, where needed, to help court users feel able to make the appropriate decision for their case.

    Practicing in the witness box and answering neutral questions such as, “What did you have for breakfast?” can go a long way towards helping someone feel more at ease. This is also a great time to practice reading the oath and get used to the setting in which they will later give evidence. When it comes to the real deal, they will know where to stand, what the view of the court will look like and be ready to take the oath. These steps can mean the process doesn’t feel quite so unusual and daunting.

  6. Video-link or screens
    A video-link in court allows people to give evidence from a remote location. They will appear on-screen in the courtroom. A camera in the court will allow them to see the other parties. A video-link can help someone feel less stressed as they are somewhat shielded from the intense pressure of the courtroom.

    Some people also ask to use screens around the witness box to prevent them from having to see other parties whilst giving evidence. Stress can affect the quantity and quality of communication and therefore, making sure court users feel as comfortable as possible whilst giving evidence ensures they can give their best evidence – which is of benefit both to themselves and the court.

  7. Allow processing time  
    Lots of detailed information can be discussed in a short space of time in the courtroom, often using specialised vocabulary and complex grammar. It can be hard to keep up with the pace and maintain focus. It is important that court users have plenty of time to process legal discussions, evidence and questions put to them. They should be reminded that, if they don’t understand a question, it is not their fault, and they should ask for the barrister or judge to repeat the question in a different way. They should also be told that they can ask for a break if and when they require one, have water whenever they want and take time to consider their answer before responding. It is always helpful if those in the courtroom speak at a slower pace than usual to support one’s ability to digest the information being discussed.

  8. Regular breaks
    Taking breaks is important to allow an opportunity to emotionally reregulate and manage stress. Breaks allow a person to rest, which can support their attention and emotional state when they return to the courtroom. Breaks throughout the court day can support someone’s wellbeing and increase their ability to focus on the proceedings. They can also help court users to consolidate the evidence, as when someone takes a break, they are having a chance to review and discuss the information (with appropriate people), helping them to better retain the content of proceedings. It’s also the perfect time for legal representatives to answer any questions the court user may have had, which could not be answered within the courtroom.

  9. An intermediary
    Intermediaries can facilitate communication between court users and the court. Intermediaries will use their expertise in communication to explore an individual’s communication strengths and difficulties, then suggest ways to assist their communication during proceedings, if needed. It is important to note, however, that an intermediary will only be recommended or allocated in cases where the court user has an existing communication difficulty.

    If someone is feeling stressed, they are likely to struggle to concentrate, this may mean they miss key information. An intermediary will whisper to the court user during hearings to ensure they understand what is being said. An intermediary may also make simple notes for the individual and re-cap the key evidence in breaks with the court user and their legal team.

    Just the presence of an intermediary can help the court user feel less stressed, as they have someone to sit next to them in court and answer questions they may have throughout the day. An intermediary will monitor their stress levels and call for breaks (when necessary) and provide recommendations to the court about how to best assist.

  10. Listen
    Talk to the court user. They may have their own strategies which they use in day-to-day life which help them manage stress. Everyone has their own ways of coping, and it may be that the court user already has some good tools they use to help them de-stress. Have an open conversation about what would be beneficial and see if they have any ideas of their own.

Stress has a big impact on communication. Communication difficulties with understanding and/or expressing oneself can have serious implications during court proceedings. Mitigating the impact of stress, where possible, is an important step towards improving understanding and assisting court users to participate in their trial or hearing effectively.

  • Get involved with Stress Awareness Week using the hashtag #StressAwarenessWeek from 7th-13th November 2022.
  • Learn more about coping with stress from Rethink Mental Illness

Article Image by Ben White on Unsplash