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