My name is Anna and I’ve been an intermediary at Communicourt for two and a half years now (wow time flies!). I studied Psychology at university and, once I had finished my course I became an analyst – which I found very boring as I had to look at excel spreadsheets for hours on end! But it was in this job that I first heard about the role of an intermediary from one of my colleagues. I started to research the role and it really appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in court. My Granddad became a magistrate when he retired, and growing up, I always loved hearing his stories from the courtroom. However, I was never drawn to a career in law. So, when I heard about the role of an intermediary, I was very excited at the prospect.
My job as an intermediary is to assist individuals with communication difficulties going through court proceedings. This is usually in either the criminal or family court. In this blog post, I will take you through a recent week in my intermediary life! However, it’s important to remember that no two weeks are the same for an intermediary. Each new week brings new cases, new people and fresh chances to have a positive impact on an individual’s access to justice.
My week started with a remote family court case. Working from my home, I emailed the solicitor to try and arrange pre-hearing discussions so I could talk with the service user to introduce myself, build rapport and explore how we could communicate during the hearing.
Unfortunately, I did not get a response. Despite making lots of different phone calls, by 9:30 (when the court hearing was due to start) I still had not had any contact from the solicitor, nor received a link for the court hearing itself.
After continuously trying to make contact, I was finally sent the link to the hearing – well after court had already started! I joined mid-way through the hearing and made a note of what was said. After the hearing, I tried to arrange a post-hearing conference to explore the service user’s understanding of the hearing and to provide support with any areas of difficulty. Unfortunately, this was also not possible. I then updated the case notes so the next intermediary who works with this service user can check their understanding of the case.
This was a frustrating start to the week, as usually remote hearings are much more straightforward than this. In the majority of cases, contact numbers are available and it is straightforward to set up a pre- and post- hearing discussion. It is also very rare that an intermediary is only provided access to the hearing part-way through. Typically, at the outset of remote hearings, ground rules are discussed with the intermediary, so everyone is appraised of any needs the service user may have and knows how remote intermediary assistance will be managed.
Equally, by the time most remote hearings start, I’ve usually had a chance to speak with the service user. At this stage, I typically explore the best options for providing remote assistance (either through an open phone line during the hearing, by using a CVP intermediary room or by text messaging during the hearing – all dependant on the technology available to the service user, and their level of literacy). In most cases, by the time hearings commence, myself and the service user will have exchanged numbers and set up a method of communication, to ensure they have access to simplification, recaps and other assistance. Today, things didn’t go so smoothly, but it can only get better from here!
Tuesday was supposed to be a day to catch up on admin work but, at approximately 10:30am, I received a call from the Communicourt bookings team asking me to cover a last-minute family court hearing. To make matters more interesting, the person I would be assisting needed some further assessment to gain a full understanding of their communication abilities.
By 11am I was on a Zoom call with the service user, conducting some further assessment tasks which looked at some areas of communication that had not been previously assessed. After this, I gave their barrister a quick call to update him on the new findings, before entering the remote family court case.
The court hearing was about ensuring the individual would be able to participate in the upcoming in-person hearing effectively. I addressed the judge and gave some recommendations to the court about what would help this person participate to the best of their ability. The judge agreed to all of my recommendations which included:
- Advocates for all parties to send their proposed questions to the intermediary in advance of the service user’s evidence (to allow the intermediary to check the questions are worded and structured in a way that will be best understood by the service user – allowing them to give their best evidence).
- Permission for the service user to remain in their usual seat in the body of the court during their evidence (due to high levels of anxiety).
- Only one advocate to ask questions on behalf of all parties (to help minimise the impact of anxiety upon their ability to process questions and formulate responses).
- Frequent breaks (with recommended timings).
- Permission for the service user to make use of an attention aid (tangle toy) at court.
On Wednesday I had a break from the family court and instead attended a conference with a young person facing criminal proceedings. They were someone I have assisted before, so I already knew a bit about their communication profile, but I reminded myself of their communication needs by reviewing their intermediary report and cognitive report in advance. I also reminded myself of the case by reading the intermediary case notes.
It was then time to attend the conference, after a short walk over to the solicitor’s office, I helped the service user to understand the process of a trial by creating a simple court diagram showing who will be sat where and by explaining the job of each person in the room. I also used a visual aid to help the service user decide whether he will be plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ by using a flowchart to explain each option and the potential outcomes of both. Throughout our meeting, I intervened to check the service user’s understanding and simplified any low frequency language his barrister used, this helped the service user give clear instructions and follow what was being said.
On Thursday I attended another conference, this time with someone who had a very important family court hearing coming up. Again, this was a service user I had previously worked with and so I already had an understanding of their communication abilities, but it is still important to frequently remind myself of the individual’s case and communication profile. I re-read the intermediary report and case notes in advance of the meeting.
During the meeting, I assisted the solicitor to ask questions in a way that made sense to the individual and allowed him to give clear responses.
For example, the solicitor asked, “So you don’t agree with what the local authority want?”. This is a statement-style question which invites agreement (making it harder for more suggestible people to contradict). It also included a negative (“don’t”), which can prompt unclear answers.
I therefore asked the service user, “What do social services want?” and, “What do you want?”. This enabled me to check the service user understood what other parties in the case were asking for, and also enabled the service user to provide clear instructions.
We then spoke about what sort of recommendations could be made in court to aid the service user’s participation in the upcoming hearing. For example, asking the court to sit for shorter days, due to the service user’s difficulties with concentration, and asking for regular breaks, so the intermediary can check understanding and allow time for the service user to ask any questions.
Friday brings yet another new court case to my calendar. I assisted a young person who I have worked with numerous times before. Today was an in-person family court hearing, which involved taking an early morning train to court. Whilst on the train, I read through the report and case notes to remind myself of exactly what sort of support was required.
When I arrived in court, I met the service user and barrister, and we found a quiet space to have pre-hearing discussions. During this conversation, I assisted the service user’s understanding by explaining low frequency vocabulary (less commonly used words) and asking questions to check they had understood what was being said.
For example, when the barrister said, “The local authority’s position is ambiguous right now” I explained that meant, “The social workers are not being clear about what they want”.
At the end of the conference, in order to check the service user’s understanding, I asked specific questions such as, “What does *NAME* want to happen?” and, “Why are you having an assessment?”. These questions enabled me to check that the service user had gained a clear understanding of what had been discussed.
After a break, it was then time to enter the courtroom. I sat with the service user and whispered real time explanations to them throughout the proceedings. For example, when one of the barrister’s said *NAME’s* statement has been “filed and served”, I whispered to the service user, “The court have got a copy of *NAME’s* statement”. I also drew a simple line drawing of the courtroom to show who was sitting where and what their job was. This assisted the service user to understand who was speaking on behalf of who.
At one juncture, they made an important comment to me, so I passed a note forward to the barrister. The barrister then addressed the judge on this point. After the hearing, we had a quick conversation with counsel to go over what was said in court. I checked the service user had understood everything by asking focussed questions and asking them to explain what had happened in court in their own words.
It was then time to go home. On my train home I completed some admin tasks and wrote up the case notes from the day.
Working as a Communicourt intermediary requires resilience and adaptability. It is an extremely rewarding role, where every day is interesting and new. The job is unpredictable and unforeseen circumstances arise all the time, but every day brings new stories, unexpected twists, new challenges and the chance to make a positive difference to people facing some of the most difficult moments of their lives.
If you would like to learn more about the intermediary role at different stages of family and criminal proceedings, visit The Access Brief. A growing library of free resources developed for legal professionals working with clients who have communication needs, including guides to working with clients who have a range of common conditions which impact communication.