“Why didn’t your legal career pan out?”- understanding the role of an intermediary

We asked our intermediaries to tell us about the most common challenges they face in their roles. Shannon discusses how there is a lack of awareness about her role, and why she is so passionate about helping people to understand.

When I tell people I am an intermediary, I am often met with a blank stare. When I tell them I mainly work in the criminal and family courts, they assume that I am involved in mediating cases or I am a failed barrister.

Our role in the long history of the courts is relatively new. As a form of special measure for defendants in criminal court cases and respondents in family court cases, intermediaries only came into practice in 2007. We work with people who have communication difficulties to help them understand proceedings and give their best quality evidence.

Before I joined Communicourt, I didn’t know what an intermediary was. I have also found people working in the courts are not always fully aware of what we do either. But I see the difference we make every day, and that is why I am so keen to shout about our work.

Here are some of the common questions I get asked:

“Is an intermediary like a support worker?”

No, we are there to facilitate effective communication between the court and the vulnerable person we are supporting. Even though intermediaries are trained to handle emotional dysregulation, our role is to measure how this effects someone’s ability to give evidence or understand proceedings in court.

I tell the court how I can monitor this throughout proceedings, then arrangements and update the court accordingly.  For example, I might use anxiety scales to help a vulnerable person to rate how they are feeling from 1 to 10. Anything past 7, then I will ask for an emergency break so they can take some time and compose themselves.

If someone needs emotional support outside of proceedings, then arrangements for a support worker can be made.

“Where did you study law?”

‘Where did you study law?’ and ‘How come your legal career didn’t pan out?’ are just examples of questions I have been asked.

There is an assumption that because intermediaries are aware of court proceedings and court terminology, then we must have legal training. This is not the case, we are not legal professionals, we are communication specialists.

Intermediaries are specialised communication specialists who usually have a background in either speech and language therapy or psychology. We all go through specialised intermediary training, which teaches us the basics of the law and the criminal justice system.

“Can you tell me if my client has capacity or not?”

During my first hearing as an intermediary, I was asked if I believed someone lacked capacity to take part. They approached me as they knew I had a background in psychology, so assumed I was trained to know whether someone had capacity or not.

This is not true. We are communication specialists and, even though we have a background in that field, we are not experts in regard to capacity and are not ‘wearing that hat’ when we are working as an intermediary.

When we assess people, we solely focus on the specific communication difficulties they may have, and how this difficulty could be facilitated in court. Although we do discuss any learning disabilities/difficulties and mental health issues they may have, this is only to explore how their conditions effect their communication and what techniques could assist them. I do not explore in my assessment whether someone is unable to participate in court, but rather make recommendations which will help them. 

Why is it important to understand the intermediary role?

It is crucial for anyone working in the justice system to be aware of the practice and purpose of an intermediary, in order to access this service when working with a vulnerable person.

Criminal and family court rooms can be overwhelming, stressful and confusing for people with communication difficulties. We are there to facilitate best communication between the court and the defendant, and to make sure the defendant understands everything that is going on.

The vulnerable person is guided by their legal professionals during their time in court, so it is important that these professionals are giving them information about our role and how we can support them through their legal proceedings.

Our role is growing within the courts, intermediary provision is being reviewed as part of the government’s new National Disability Strategy. Improving access to justice, courts and legal support are key issues in the Strategy and this will help to develop a better understanding of what we do.

My time as an intermediary as given me an insight into how many vulnerable people find themselves in court proceedings. I enjoy implementing strategies which help people to understand and follow proceedings more thoroughly. I have had many great experiences where a vulnerable person has expressed their gratitude for my attendance.

All vulnerable people should have the opportunity to participate in the court process fairly, and in a way they can best understand. That is why intermediaries, and our roles, are so important.