Reflections from the Access to Justice Conference 2023

This month  we hosted Communicourt’s first ever conference. Held in partnership with UK legal reform charity JUSTICE, the Access to Justice Conference 2023 took place in Leeds and online, with attendees including legal practitioners, law students, clinical psychologists, ISVAs (independent sexual violence advisors) and representatives from many other connected professions.

Now that the dust has settled, we’d like to reflect on some of the most important messages and discussions generated by the conference – and give a big thank you to all of our guests and speakers. The whole Communicourt team is extremely grateful to have been able to take part in such a multidisciplinary conversation about making justice more accessible – and we’re very pleased to have been able to share a range of perspectives on this multifaceted issue.

Although the majority of our speakers focussed on criminal proceedings, many of the ideas they shared are also applicable in the family courts and other proceedings. Though it wasn’t possible to explore every factor which may result in barriers to participation (on this occasion), we hope conversations around diagnoses like autism, learning disability and trauma, offered a window into some key areas for improvement – which stand to benefit all court users, including those with other accessibility requirements.

Full recordings and resources from the conference will be shared with all attendees by the end of November.

Chris Packham: Video-recorded foreword

We are incredibly grateful to broadcaster, naturalist and environmental campaigner, Chris Packham, who very generously shared his experiences of attending court as an autistic claimant. Chris’ clip was played at the outset of the event, setting the stage for broader discussions about inclusion in legal proceedings.

Chris eloquently reflected on the importance of predictability and foreknowledge for autistic people attending court. He explained that familiarisation with the hearing process and environment could be very important steps for court users, assisting them to manage difficult emotions (such as anxiety) more effectively, and allowing them to focus on the matter at hand.

Speaking about the court environment itself, Chris showed us the courtroom through his individual autistic lens, commenting that it was “a terrible cluttered jumble… The visual complexity of that environment was challenging for a while. Lots of hanging chandeliers, some with bulbs that were working, some with bulbs that weren’t…”, and remarking that it took him around two hours to feel that he was not distracted by the complex visual environment. He explained, “If I’m managing my autism, I’m not focusing on what I need to be focusing on”.

Chris also raised the enduring issue of audibility in legal proceedings – a matter which affects all court users, regardless of neurodivergence. He commented, “It was very difficult to hear. There were suspended microphones, but they didn’t seem to amplify the voices of the barristers at all. […] because we were sat behind the barristers who were facing the judge […] a number of people were struggling to hear […] whether you’re neurodiverse or not, that’s really frustrating. You’ve got to be able to hear that stuff”.

In summing up, Chris shared what he described as very “simple”, common sense suggestions for making the courts more accessible for autistic people – particularly sharing clear, detailed information about the hearing process and environment in advance. He also suggested the provision of videos showing the specific courtroom the individual would attend, to allow them to familiarise themselves with the setting in advance.

Although related resources do exist (like the video guide for witnesses attending court below, created by the Ministry of Justice), most videos of this type depict a generic courtroom in optimum condition. This does not often reflect the realities of most courtrooms and does not offer insight into the specific setting the autistic court user will attend.

In addition, many such videos are filmed for use by witnesses, rather than by other participants in proceedings. In this example, complex vocabulary like “specific” and “prosecutorial agency” is used, which would not be easily understood by all court users. Non-literal language (“testing the strength of the prosecution”) is also used, which may not be easily understood by some autistic court users.

Although Chris modestly described his suggestions as simple, questioning whether they would be of any help, his common-sense ideas are important – and, in fact, quite challenging to implement in the most effective way. These are certainly suggestions worth further exploration.

His Honour Judge Neil Clark

Opening the speaker sessions, HHJ Neil Clark provided a far-reaching overview of our legal system’s continuing journey towards improved accessibility. He acknowledged that change is about gradual evolution, rather than dramatic shifts, pointing to how far our legal system has come over the past 150 years. He commented: “It wasn’t until 1851 that the defendant in a civil case could give [any] evidence in their own defence. It wasn’t until 1898 and the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act, that the first defendant was able to give evidence under oath at all”.

His Honour also offered a glimpse into his particular interest in accessible justice, explaining that, when his mother developed a degenerative condition, he began to consider whether “bright people like her, with communication needs” would have real access to justice. He commented, “When I went to court and saw someone giving evidence, I’d think, I wonder how my mum would feel about doing that?”.

HHJ Clark also reflected upon the meaning of ‘best evidence’, noting that “achieving best evidence doesn’t just mean from the perspective of the prosecution” and asked, “In criminal court, why is it that we focus so much on cross-examination?”.

Kama Melly KC

The next speaker tackled the topic of person-centred approaches to special measures, with a particular focus on trauma-informed practice and working with young court users. Kama Melly KC provided a great deal of insight into the realities of legal proceedings for court users with vulnerabilities, and for those representing them. In her experience-driven, pragmatic presentation, she shared many of the overlooked barriers to effective participation which go unaddressed in legal proceedings – and many of the small adjustments which can be made to assist (but are all-too-rarely implemented).

In one, striking example (which will not be at all unfamiliar to intermediaries), Kama stated: “I watched [a] child give evidence for hours without breaks, until she agreed with every single question. She was asked frequently if she wanted a break by the judge. She didn’t want a break, she wanted to get out, so she said ‘no’ every time”. She added, “This wasn’t about ensuring the defendant had a fair trial. It was about putting the case and getting to the final objective”.

While the Youth Justice & Criminal Evidence Act (1999) set out a number of broad special measures (such as video-link evidence and intermediary assistance), Kama’s presentation highlights the myriad ‘small barriers’ which prevent court users from participating in legal proceedings fairly, which are very often overlooked and brushed aside due to factors like time constraints.

Attempting to address these ‘small’ (but very significant) barriers, therefore, falls to individual legal practitioners and, in some cases, intermediaries, who have first-hand insight into the communication needs of the court users they work with. However, under considerable professional pressure, not all advocates have the time or resources to ensure such barriers are addressed. Kama shared some examples from her own practice, which illustrate the deep thoughtfulness of approach which is often required to support a vulnerable court user.

She explained that she often chooses to ‘give words’ to her clients, which they can use to advocate for themselves during cross-examination. For example, telling them that, if they feel pressured to give a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in the witness box, they should say something like, “I’m sorry, I can’t explain that in one word”, which will prompt the judge to allow them to provide a more nuanced response.

Kama also explained her practice with regards to witness statements: “Everyone who reads their witness statement thinks they have taken it all in and they put it to one side. I annoy police officers. I make them read them out to the witness.”

Although intermediaries frequently work alongside excellent, intuitive and client-focussed barristers, the attuned practice outlined by Kama during her presentation is very uncommon. Very few legal practitioners, no matter how well-intentioned, have the bandwidth to ensure their practice is truly person-centred and responds to the specific needs of the client on this level.

Speaking later, during the panel discussion, Kama stated that trauma-informed questioning will “be the next big training we all engage with [as legal practitioners]”, also noting that updating training would be very beneficial for more senior legal practitioners, whose knowledge, awareness and skillset may not be in-step with current best practice around trauma.

Andi Brierley

Drawing on both his lived experience of care, drug addiction and the youth justice system, and his extensive experience of working in youth justice, Andi Brierley addressed how we, as professionals, engage with young people caught up in the criminal justice system. His presentation highlighted that, although treated as discrete labels, terms like “perpetrator”, “defendant”, “criminal”, “witness” and “victim” are often overlapping. He spoke about the impact of adverse childhood experiences and the common pathways into the criminal justice system, which can lead from disadvantage.

Andi encouraged the audience to be more intentional in their communication with young defendants and offenders, stating, “When we come into contact with those children [who have not had attuned care], Every interaction is an intervention”, adding, “Change the word engagement to connection. Switch from ‘they’re not engaging’ to ‘we’re not connecting’. Relationships are reciprocal, you’ve got responsibility for that, too”.

Dr Katie Maras

Researcher and senior lecturer, Dr Katie Maras’ presentation explored a wide range of topics relating to the experiences of autistic people subject to police questioning and cross-examination. Her talk included information about memory differences in autistic people, the most and least helpful questioning approaches, and relevant studies (like Bagnell et al, 2023, which have found that “truth-telling autistic mock-suspects reported fewer extricating details that would support their innocence than non-autistic mock-suspects”).

Katie then considered the barriers an autistic defendant may face at court, and shared her project regarding the effectiveness of special measures in cases involving autistic people. This project is currently examining important questions, such as: “What effect do Special Measures have on autistic witnesses’ and defendants’ experiences and ability to provide their ‘best evidence’ and are further measures needed?” and “What is the effect of special measures, diagnosis disclosure and juror instructions on how autistic individuals are perceived by jurors and judges?”.

Katie also invited legal professionals with experience of working with autistic people in court or tribunals to participate in her current project, which still requires participants. Participants can undertake an online questionnaire or take part in an approximately one-hour remote interview (those who take part will receive a £10 shopping voucher). Complete the questionnaire here: or contact for more information.

Edmore Masendeke

Concluding the speaker sessions, University of Leeds PhD student, Edmore, shared his research into “The court experiences of defendants with mental health conditions or learning disabilities in England”. Although drawing from a small sample, Edmore’s research uncovered some valuable insights into the court experiences of his participants.

The quotes included in his presentation vividly shared these experiences, and the barriers these individuals faced to participation. For example, one interviewee explained, I didn’t understand what was happening. It was like I was in a daze; like I didn’t really understand what … what the questions were asking, and like what court is like, you know, I guess, how to get in … I didn’t understand like what the judge is saying or any questions that they are asking me, to be fair. It was just mumbo jumbo. It is just like in a different language which, you know, I really didn’t understand.”

Another participant reported, “I was unsure whether I was acquitted, that is, a formal declaration that I was not guilty of the charges put in front of me. He (the solicitor) said ‘No, I wasn’t acquitted. The case was dropped.’ So … that … that only came … that was only explained to me weeks afterwards…”,

Concluding his presentation, Edmore stated, “There has been very little empirical research on the effectiveness of the support measures that courts are expected to rely on in the absence of intermediary assistance – and defendants with cognitive impairments’ views and opinions of that experience. The findings of this research suggest that those who received the support found it beneficial, while those who did not receive this support found it difficult to follow and understand what was happening during court proceedings”.

A big thank you

The entire Communicourt team would like to thank each attendee and speaker for their time, knowledge, and engagement with the important topic of access to justice. We sincerely hope that the event has generated discussions about how we can all work to further improve the accessibility of the justice system.

As His Honour Judge Clark points out, these improvements may be slow and incremental, which makes continuing these conversations – and keeping accessibility firmly in mind in our daily practice – extremely important. We are particularly inspired by Kama Melly KC’s identification of the myriad ‘smaller’ barriers and accommodations, which can make a big difference to an individual’s participation in legal proceedings (provided they are implemented in an attuned way). There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, if those working alongside court users can more easily identify barriers and continue to share our practice, we can slowly make positive change on an individual level.

Bagnall, R., Russell, A., Brosnan, M. & Maras, K. (2023). Police suspect interviews with autistic adults: The impact of truth telling vs deception on testimony. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

Further resources

Interested in learning more about communication differences and difficulties which can impact participation in legal proceedings? The Access Brief is a library of free bite-sized guides to everything from ADHD at court, to how an intermediary can work alongside an interpreter to support a court user’s understanding of proceedings.

For further information and queries, please contact

Doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Text on top reads: Vulnerable accused conference: a digested read

Bite-sized ‘take homes’ from the Vulnerable Accused Conference

Doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Text on top reads: Vulnerable accused conference: a digested read

This month, members of the Communicourt team attended the Vulnerable Accused Conference at the University of Birmingham, attended by academics from a range of backgrounds (including law, criminology and speech and language therapy). Over the two-day event, speakers presented their research on a range of topics relevant to the intermediary role and vulnerabie defendants. ‘Intermediaries’ were a real topic of interest at the conference, with calls from academics for intermediary support at many more stages of proceedings, including at the police interview stage and in parole hearings.

We’ve digested some of our favourite ‘take homes’ below. If you’d like to explore any of the research below in more detail, extended abstracts will be published on a rolling basis on the Defending Vulnerability blog (which is great source for research in this area).  You can also check out the work of many of the speakers via their Twitter feeds (linked in each talk title below).

Below you’ll find digested read versions of:

Keynote speech from Dr Penny Cooper

To open the conference, Dr Penny Cooper delivered a keynote speech exploring defendant vulnerability in the Criminal Justice System and sharing the progress made, lessons learned and future endeavours.

Dr Cooper commented that vulnerability goes far beyond a formal diagnosis, and beyond speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). She noted, “There are vulnerable moments as well as vulnerable people”, which can impact any court user who is attending an unfamiliar, intimidating court setting where processes are not clear, customs are alien, emotions are heightened and language is complex.

This view informed her call for universal reform of the criminal justice process, which included the implementation of Universal Ground Rules which should apply in all cases, not only those in which the defendant or witnesses are identified as vulnerable. These Universal Ground Rules, Cooper posited, should include a shift to succinct, plain and simple language (avoiding Legalese), which would benefit all lay parties, irrespective of their communication skills.

She also highlighted many of the barriers to effective participation faced by defendants in general (and specifically those with SLCN), for example the layout of the typical English courtroom, “I’ve seen many a defendant struggle to hear in [the dock in] an English courtroom. They disengage. Why is this setup tolerated in this day and age?”, and the use of inquisitorial cross-examination in which witnesses are “told rather than asked about their evidence”. Cooper noted, “Anyone who thinks this is the best way to get to the truth is very much mistaken”. She additionally touched upon the very high likelihood that defendants (and especially those with SLCN) will agree they understand when they do not, and will not indicate when they have not understood.

Ground Rules, screening & professional attitudes

Discussing Ground Rules Hearings (GRH), Cooper cited a judge who remarked, “A GRH, well-timed, with the judge and advocates present, makes the case go smoothly”. Cooper went on to add, “There are two kinds [of GRH], one where the judge just skips through the recommendations and the other when there’s a genuine discussion about the witness and the recommendations”. She added, “Even where there’s no intermediary, Ground Rules for the questioning ought to be set. Legal practitioners do have the training and toolkits to fall back on, but it’s no substitute for the advice of a trained intermediary”.

Cooper highlighted the importance of improved screening for SLCN and vulnerability in the Criminal Justice System, at the earliest possible stage (ideally the custody stage). Currently, no such screening tool is used consistently across English and Welsh custody suites. Cooper explained that the courts are, therefore, often reliant on the defendant self-declaring a difficulty or diagnosis, or upon vulnerability being noticed by the judge or legal professionals involved in the case.

Cooper stated that “the attitude of judges and advocates is the single most important factor in changing practice” and underscored that it is vital that legal practitioners “understand that vulnerability and how it affects participation is outside their scope – this is the role of the intermediary”. 

Touching on the recent HMCTS Managed and Approved Service Provider framework for intermediaries, Cooper commented that it is “too early” to comment on its effectiveness. She explained that “growing demand for services inevitably poses challenges”, noting that one often hears “about lawyers seeking services of intermediary but unable to find one suitable for their client”. Despite current difficulties fulfilling demand, she was of the view that “there’s even more work intermediaries could be doing. If only England was like Ireland and had intermediaries for vulnerable suspects” adding that, “For all the challenges of the role, the use of intermediaries is here to stay”. 

Future endeavours

Looking to the future, Cooper felt that universal reform of the system is required, alongside lived experience-informed overhaul of the courtroom. She summarised: “What we have not yet seen is a universal shift in language in the courtroom. Universal changes must be implemented [as well as] a screening mechanism for suspects and defendants. That’s long overdue.”

Is Cross-examination of a Vulnerable Defendant with Intellectual Disability a Fair Communicative Exchange? – Joanne Morrison

A lecturer in Intellectual Disability, Morrison also works as a Registered Intermediary in Northern Ireland. Her presentation analysed the communication ‘exchange’ between a prosecution barrister and a vulnerable defendant with intellectual disability, concluding that this communication could not, in fact, be called an exchange, due to the one-way, leading, adversarial questioning process, heavily steered by counsel and governed by the many unspoken power dynamics at play in the courtroom.

Morrison highlighted that the “rules of advocacy” are to “lead and tell – don’t ask questions”, in order to control the witness. She drew attention to a range of power disparities, from small physical examples (such as advocates standing to cross-examine a seated witness), to larger, more global differences, such as the often contrasting educational and cultural backgrounds of advocate and witness.

Most importantly, she highlighted that, while a defendant with an intellectual disability is likely to be wholly unfamiliar with complex courtroom communication and customs (and likely to have communication difficulties in everyday life), advocates have trained and practiced for many years to become expert court communicators. These courtroom expertise mean that, while counsel may put a ‘question’ (or, indeed, a statement) to a defendant, this question is in fact a message to the decisions-makers in the case (judge or jury). The true purpose of this ‘non-question’ is likely to be unclear to the defendant (e.g., drawing the jury’s attention to a discrepancy in their testimony).

The talk went on to unpack a range of commonly used cross-examination question styles which lead witnesses, and can prove particularly problematic when used with defendants who have an intellectual disability, due to the increased likelihood of suggestibility and poorer communication skills. Morrison noted, however, that “It’s not [just] a matter of question style – that’s just one factor”. This final point is a very helpful and deceptively simple observation, which can get lost once we, as intermediaries (and other professionals), begin to experience the courtroom environment as ‘everyday’.

“Missing the Signs”: A Legal-Ethical Analysis of ‘Good’ Lawyering for the Neurodivergent Accused – Tom Smith

Tom Smith (Associate Professor in Law, University of West England) explored the concept of ‘good lawyering’ for the neurodivergent accused, finding that lawyers are “obligated to ensure being neurodivergent is not a disadvantage” in the Criminal Justice System. His research sets out principles for good lawyering for neurodivergent clients, including:

  • The ability to recognise neurodivergence.
  • Understanding the communication differences and difficulties a wide spectrum of neurodivergent people may have.
  • The ability to responsively adapt their practice in order to communicate effectively with their neurodivergent client.
  • Understanding the available adaptations and services which may support the effective participation of a neurodivergent defendant.
  • Understanding that the police and courts may not implement the necessary adaptations an adjustments.
  • Proactively acting to implement adjustments, when other bodies do not do so, to ensure neurodivergent clients are not disadvantaged in the CJS.

Cross-Examination Compared: The experiences of vulnerable defendant and non-defendant witnesses – Jonathan Doak, Debbie Cooper, Candida Saunders & David Wright

This talk identified a hierarchy of ‘deservingness’ when it came to the outlook of legal professionals regarding support and adaptations for witnesses during cross-examination.

– Child Witnesses
– Vulnerable Adult Witnesses
– Vulnerable Adult Defendants

The study found that this hierarchy results in “clear distinctions in approach”, such as limited intermediary support for vulnerable adult defendants and limited use of Ground Rules Hearings for these individuals.

This research surveyed many legal practitioners in the criminal justice system, who contributed interesting insights on the topic, including:

  • “Defendants do not get the same treatment as complainants, regardless of their need”
  • “As a [legal] practitioner, the culture […] is really very different and very far behind the way that we treat witnesses”.

The research also explored the evolving role of the intermediary when working with a vulnerable defendant, which is moving away from an “interpreter” model to a “facilitator” model, as a secure understanding of the proceedings in their entirety is essential to ensuring a defendant’s effective participation in trial. One legal professional commented, “How [is the defendant] going to answer questions about a case where he hasn’t understood what the prosecution evidence is?”

The study posited that some of the disparities between the treatment of vulnerable non-defendant and defendant witnesses boiled down to financial concerns. It also considered approaches taken in other jurisdictions. For example, “Northern Ireland has a much better model of practice. The identification of vulnerable suspects is much better. Because it’s a small jurisdiction, the intermediaries know each other, they know judges, there’s more bottom up activity”. 

The authors commented that, in Northern Ireland, an intermediary service was more recently implemented and, when it was, “There was a real sense of, ‘fairness demands that intermediaries should be available for defendants and witnesses’”. 

An Intermediary, a Defendant with Autism and Cross-Examination: A Novel Australian Case Study – Rukiya Stein

Stein is an intermediary working in Australian courts. After assisting a defendant with autism during his evidence, she requested court transcripts and analysed the interaction, exploring when she intervened, when she did not intervene, complex question types put to the defendant and simple question types asked of him. The judge did not grant permission for Stein to review the questions in advance of the defendant’s evidence.

One of the most common complex question types put to the defendant was interrogative statements. The cross-examination also featured low-frequency vocabulary and tag questions. Stein found that her level of intervention was relatively low, but remarked, “There’s a balance you have to strike as intermediaries, you can’t intervene for every question, you can get into trouble for that”, adding that the defendant was often able to indicate when he had not correctly understood the question.

The Use of Intermediaries (Communication Specialists) at Parole Board Oral Hearings in England and WalesBrendan O’Mahony, Becky Milne, Kevin Smith

O’Mahony is a parole board member, psychologist and intermediary for both witnesses and defendants in the criminal justice system. In this presentation, he explored the need for intermediary assistance in parole hearings and parole board attitudes to both communication needs and future possible intermediary usage.

The presentation reported that 18,248 cases were referred to the parole board in one recent year, of which 7,281 went to oral hearings, resulting in hundreds of parole hearings every month. O’Mahony reflected on the high prevalence of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) within prisons, noting that, as a result, many prisoners attending parole hearings were likely to have SLCN which may impact their ability to participate effectively.

39 parole board members were surveyed as part of this research. The vast majority had attended a hearing where they felt the prisoner required communication support. However, none had attended a hearing involving an intermediary. O’Mahony explained that precise figures regarding intermediary assistance at parole hearings was difficult to find (as this was not routinely recorded), but the study was able to find evidence of intermediary usage in just 5-6 cases in total (over a number of years).

Effective Participation means Early Participation: The Case for Intermediary Assistance at the Investigative stage – John Taggart

Taggart’s ongoing project makes the case for intermediary assistance at the investigative stage (e.g., during police interviews). Hailing from Northern Ireland, where the more recently implemented intermediary scheme has included assistance in custody from the outset, Taggart suggested that, in England and Wales, “We’ve neglected police custody when we talk about participatory rights”.

The presentation highlighted the prevalence of communication difficulties in the criminal justice system, and sought to unpack the slippery issue of what ‘effective participation’ really means. While sources like SC v UK (2005) 40 EHRR 10 find that this requires a “broad understanding of the nature of the process” and “the general thrust” of what is said in court, other sources, like Owusu-Bempah (2018), conclude that it requires courts to reach the higher bar of “informed defence participation”.

Taggart also touched upon a difficult question which may arise in custody settings: When is someone vulnerable enough to need an Appropriate Adult? And then, when are they so vulnerable that they need an intermediary?

Identifying the need for and obtaining appropriate adults (case study, interviews and statistical review) – Jennifer Holmes & Harriet Pierpoint

Dr Jennifer Holmes and Professor Harriet Pierpoint spoke about their respective research and the resulting insights into the identification of vulnerability in police stations, and how appropriate adults are obtained for police interviews.

At the outset of their presentation, Pierpoint explained that the responsibility for identifying vulnerability before a police interview is dependent on the situation. In the case of a police suspect interview where the person is under arrest, it is the custody sergeant’s responsibility, whereas in a voluntary interview, it is the responsibility of the interviewing officer. In the case of suspects under the age of 18, an appropriate adult is mandatory during interviews.

As part of Holmes’ recent research, she reviewed the police suspect interviews and custody records for 27 vulnerable suspects, across 3 police forces. This was then followed by semi-structured interviews with police officers, appropriate adults and legal advisors, exploring the decision-making processes than had taken place when interacting with these vulnerable suspects.

Holmes found that, although suspects under 18 all received an AA, a third of the vulnerable suspects in her sample did not. This was despite the custody records of most of that third making reference to factors likely to render a person vulnerable, such as mental health conditions.

To offer a wider perspective, Pierpoint’s ongoing work involved reviewing statistics obtained via freedom of information requests from more than 40 UK police forces, regarding the provision of AAs and the use of pre-interview assessments to identify vulnerability. Pierpoint found that not all under 18s were receiving appropriate adults. The use of these pre-assessments in voluntary interviews varied greatly between forces, from 0% to 24% across different regions. The tools used to assess for vulnerability were also not standardised across the country, with different forces using different assessments.

Holmes’ interviews highlighted great variation in the way that AAs (appropriate adults) were obtained by the police. In one interview, a detective said, “We just stick to ones that we know, really, and we just call them up on a mobile and say ‘Oh, are you free?”, whilst another reported that a preferred AA’s directed phone number was displayed in the police station. Holmes’ highlighted the concerns this raised about the close working relationship between the detectives and the AA, and the impact on the AAs role as an independent safeguard.

If you’d like to learn more about any of the research above in more detail, extended abstracts will be published on a rolling basis on the Defending Vulnerability blog (which is great source for research going on in this area). You can also check out the work of many of the speakers via their Twitter feeds (linked in each talk title). 

Watercolour speech bubble with a 'scales of justice' icon inside

Access To Justice Matters: Why we’re hosting a multi-disciplinary conference

Square, yellow banner for the Access to Justice Conference with a red door logo. The subheading of the conference is: The future of inclusion and special measures in the courts. Details: HAlf day conference. 3rd November 2023. Leeds and online. With the Communicourt and JUSTICE logos.

We have just released early bird tickets for Communicourt’s very first external conference: Access to Justice: The future of inclusion & special measures in the courts, held in partnership with UK law reform and human rights charity, JUSTICE. The half-day conference will take place on Friday 3 November in Leeds and a livestream is available for those who can’t make it in person.

We wanted to talk to you about why we think this event is necessary, and what we hope to achieve. Striving for ever-better access to justice for people with communication differences and difficulties is what drives Communicourt as an organisation. However, intermediaries are only one piece of the puzzle of achieving equal participation for all.

We recognise the limitations of our role within a much wider, complex system. We also recognise the importance of inter-disciplinary working to facilitate more effective participation, for court users with very diverse needs. In addition, there are many vulnerabilities which require accommodations and adjustments within the court process but may fall outside the purview of intermediary assistance.


JUSTICE logo (statue holding weighing balances) with text JUSTICE

We know legal professionals find themselves under increasing pressure in the court system and are always striving to do all they can for their clients. We invited JUSTICE to partner on this conference because we admire their considerable expertise and tireless work fighting for UK legal reform. They are absolutely the right partner for this event, and we are immensely proud and excited to be working with them.

Improving access without intermediaries

There are many reasons why an intermediary may not be allocated to assist a court user with a communication difference, communication difficulty or vulnerability. This might be due to resources, or time constraints. In these cases, counsel must juggle the considerable demands of representing their client, with monitoring and supporting their participation as far as possible.

Sharing the latest best practice with legal professionals is therefore (in our view) essential to improving access to justice in cases where intermediaries are not appointed. We believe that conferences like this present an excellent opportunity for sharing knowledge, which could help more court users who do not have access to an intermediary to participate more effectively in legal proceedings.

We want to spark conversation around inclusion, adaptations, adjustments and special measures, to keep these ‘tools’ firmly at the top of the agenda, whenever the court works with individuals who have communication needs or other vulnerabilities.

Sharing thinking

Nurturing inter-disciplinary understanding, collaboration and knowledge sharing is an essential part of making justice more accessible. From policy makers and judges, to academics, solicitors and intermediaries – the more communication between and awareness of intersecting roles, scopes, tools and best practice, the more effectively we can all accommodate communication needs and other vulnerabilities within the justice system.

Two thought bubbles in different watercolour colour schemes, overlapping with a lightbulb in the centre.

Among professionals working in the courtroom, there are many competing demands and priorities. For example, a judge is likely to prioritise overall case and time management more highly than an intermediary, who will prioritise adaptations which will assist their service user to participate as effectively as possible (such as breaks for further explanation and to support attention).

By the same token, a barrister may take a ‘bigger picture’ approach when considering the best approach to their client’s evidence, keeping the outcome of the case firmly in mind. They may, for example, feel strongly that live-link will reduce the impact of their client’s evidence upon a jury. As an impartial professional, an intermediary will focus on measures which will best enable their service user to understand questions put to them and to express themselves as effectively as possible. This may mean recommending remote participation (to better manage the impact of issues like anxiety, PTSD flashbacks, sensory sensitivities and other factors upon their communication).

Nurturing collaboration

The above examples of differing priorities highlight the importance of multi-disciplinary working, when tackling access to justice. Navigating these issues in order to collaboratively ensure effective participation depends on court professionals understanding the boundaries and demands of each other’s roles. Fostering greater communication across professions is a crucial step towards getting those delicate balances right.

Although not a training event, the Access to Justice conference seeks to bring together diverse professionals, allowing opportunities for interdisciplinary connection and learning.

Service user voices

We strive to facilitate equal access to justice for service users in courtrooms across England and Wales. It is their voices and experiences which continue to drive our work. Below you can read some of our service user courtroom experiences first-hand, which highlight why we do what we do, why access to justice matters, and why we hope to bring together a wide range of speakers and guests from across the justice system at the Access to Justice Conference, so we can each work more effectively, together, to achieve equal participation for all:

Watercolour speech bubble with a 'scales of justice' icon inside

“I don’t understand most of what they’re saying. I speak to [my solicitor]. When she asked me something, I said, ‘Don’t know, I’m going to put my trust in you, and you make the decision’. And with ADHD it’s really hard to make decisions. If you ask me, ‘Do you want tea or coffee?’, I’m blown”.

“Being closed in [the dock], I couldn’t hear what was being said and, if I do, what’s being said, it takes me a while to [hand gesture] absorb and understand what people are saying, maybe sometimes I won’t and the difficulty with that, sometimes I just say ‘yes’. And when you’ve got all those people watching you…”

“Yeah, that’s the problem as well because I have this thing [PTSD] sometimes when they’re talking, but, you know, my understanding and my mind goes somewhere else”.

Prevalence of communication difficulties & differences in the justice system

Although not an exhaustive list of diagnoses, differences and difficulties which may impact an individual’s ability to communication and participate effectively in legal proceedings, these statistics offer a glimpse into the prevalence of very varied communication needs at court (see references below).

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

  • 26% of adult prisoners in Britain met the criteria for some form of ADHD (Young et al, 2015)
  • 96% of offenders with ADHD have co-occurring problems involving issues such as mood, anxiety, and conduct (Young and Cocallis, 2021)
  • 30% of young offenders have some form of ADHD, compared to 3-4% percent in the general population (Young et al, 2015 and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2018)


  • 5-7% of people referred to liaison and diversion services by the courts are autistic (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021)
  • 19% of people in UK prisons have autistic indicators (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021)

Brain injury

  • 47% of adult men and 70% of male youths in UK prisons reported sustaining a head injury (Pitman et al, 2013)

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)

  • Up to 60% of young people who commit crimes have DLD (Winstanley et al, 2020)
  • Young people with DLD are twice as likely to reoffend than those who do not have the condition (Winstanley et al, 2020)

Learning Disability

  • 5-10% of people who offend have a learning disability (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)
  • 25% of young people who offend have a very low IQ, below 70 (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)

Mental health difficulties

  • 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)
  • 21% of women in prison have PTSD (Facer-Irwin et al., 2014)
  • During family law proceedings, the mental health of women with domestic abuse-related PTSD often deteriorates (Douglas, 2017)
  • 49% of people in prison reported being at risk of anxiety or depression (Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, 2017)
  • There is a higher prevalence of bipolar disorder in prison populations compared to the general population (Fovet et al, 2015)

Attend the Access to Justice Conference

We hope this article offers some insight into our motivations and goals for our very first external conference. To learn more about the conference and to book early bird tickets (available for a limited time only), please visit the Communicourt website. For further information, please contact

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Criminal Justice Joint Inspection (2021) Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system: A review of evidence, Accessed [online]: September 2022

Douglas H. (2017). Domestic and Family Violence, Mental Health and Well-Being, and Legal Engagement. Psychiatry, psychology, and law : an interdisciplinary journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 25(3), 341–356.

Facer-Irwin E, Blackwood NJ, Bird A, Dickson H, McGlade D, Alves-Costa F, et al. (2019) PTSD in prison settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of comorbid mental disorders and problematic behaviours.

Fovet, T., Geoffroy, P.A., Vaiva, Adins, C., Thomas, P., Amad, A. (2015) Individuals With Bipolar Disorder and Their Relationship With the Criminal Justice System: A Critical Review, Psychiatric Services: Volume 66, Issue 4.

Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, NHS England and Public Health England, (2017) Mental health in prisons HC 42 SESSION 2017–2019. London: National Audit Office.

Johnson, R.D. et al. (2021). Health vulnerabilities of parents in care proceedings in Wales. London: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Guidance: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis and management. 2018.

Pitman, I. , Haddlesey, C. and Fortescue, D. (2013), “The prevalence of traumatic brain injury among adult male offenders in the UK”, Disabilities Trust Website.

Prison Reform Trust (2017) Mental health, autism and learning disabilities in the criminal courts, Prison Reform Trust & Rethink Mental Illness

Winstanley, M., Webb, R. T., Conti-Ramsden, G. (2020) Developmental language disorders and risk of recidivism among young offenders. The Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 62: 396-403.

Young S, Cocallis K. ADHD and offending. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2021 Jul;128(7):1009-1019.

Young S, Moss D, Sedgwick O, Fridman M, Hodgkins P. A meta-analysis of the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in incarcerated populations. Psychol Med. 2015 Jan;45(2):247-58.