by Anna Carter (intermediary)
Youth Mental Health Day aims to encourage understanding and discussion of mental health in young people. According to , 4 in 10 young people experience mental health difficulties. At Communicourt, we frequently assist young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties whilst facing court proceedings. In this blog, we will look at how intermediaries can help young people throughout this process.
Court can be intimidating and overwhelming for any court user, due to unfamiliar court formalities, the complexities of legal proceedings, the potential consequences, and the often alien nature of the legal process to lay people.
The theme of this year’s Youth Mental Health Day is #BeBrave. There has been some and one should be careful about how they use the word ‘bravery’ in this context. We believe that asking for help is often not a matter of bravery. Many young people with mental health needs are brave every day, and some may not have important ‘tools’ required to ask for help, such as a safe environment in which to do so, the knowledge required to identify the help they need, and the communication skills to request it. They may not know who to ask, or how to ask. It should not be the sole responsibility of the young person to advocate for their own mental health needs. Young people require support from others (e.g., parents, school staff, healthcare professionals).
Youth mental health at court
Regardless of the theme, Young Mental Health Day encourages understanding and discussions around mental health in young people. To explore the experiences of young people with mental health difficulties, as well as strategies and adaptations which can assist them, I spoke to a number of court intermediaries about their work with young defendants.
*For anonymity, names and details have been changed.
Ellie [an intermediary] worked with a young defendant who had mental health difficulties. He had a diagnosis of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] and the court agreed to many adjustments, raised by Ellie during a Ground Rules Hearing and in the initial intermediary report, which would help him participate in the court environment.
Strategies that helped him:
- He was permitted to keep his jacket on to help support his emotional regulation.
- His evidence was heard via a video link so he did not have to look at the complainant during evidence.
- The intermediary was permitted to intervene during evidence if a question was too complex.
- Frequent breaks were permitted, which included ‘rest time’ to support his emotional regulation, as well as ‘explanation time’ for his legal team and intermediary to explain key evidence.
- Some of his support network attended court with him to offer emotional support.
- The intermediary sat next to the defendant and provided real-time whispered explanations to ensure he was understanding the proceedings.
Theresa [intermediary] worked with a young person at court. He didn’t have any diagnosed mental health conditions, but he was diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. He became extremely emotionally dysregulated during the court proceedings.
Some strategies that helped him included:
- Lots of breaks. Periods of discussion in both the court and during legal conferences were kept short, so he did not become overloaded.
- A Ground Rules Hearing was conducted, so all the court professionals were aware of his communication difficulties and strategies to assist.
- He was permitted to leave the courtroom when he became emotionally dysregulated.
- A support worker was permitted to sit next to him in court, along with the intermediary.
Alice [Intermediary] worked with a 16-year-old defendant. The defendant was indicted with some really serious charges, hence why he found himself in Crown Court, rather than in the more age-appropriate, Youth Court. The defendant had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], ASD [Autistic Spectrum Disorder] and high levels of anxiety. He presented as very fidgety and easily distracted. During conferences, he would become strongly focussed on matters he felt particularly anxious about. He told the intermediary that his mental health had suffered greatly due to the criminal justice process.
Alice recommended adaptations to the proceedings to help manage his high levels of anxiety and other difficulties affecting understanding and engagement, to ensure that the defendant was able to actively participate in his trial.
Some strategies which helped him were
- The intermediary visited the defendant ahead of his trial. This allowed time for the intermediary to properly introduce herself and build rapport, ensuring they could work effectively together during his trial.
- The intermediary fully explained her role and spoke to the defendant about different strategies which she may use at court to help him.
- There were lots of breaks during the trial, which included time for rest and explanation.
- The intermediary provided the defendant with a simplified order or proceedings. This ensured he knew what was coming and supported his overall understanding of the proceedings.
- The intermediary gave the defendant a fidget object which helped him to both manage his anxiety and stay more attentive.
- The intermediary provided the defendant with simple notes. This was to aid his understanding and retention of information in the court proceedings. Within these notes, the intermediary matched the defendant’s use of colloquial language to make the notes as easy as possible for him to understand.
Caitlin [intermediary] assisted during a one-day full trial in Youth Court. The service user was 16 years old and was being trialled for drug dealing. The trial was heard by magistrates. Several strategies enabled him to participate to the best of his ability. These included:
- The defendant was able to sit in the main body of the court, rather than in the dock.
- There were regular breaks.
- All court professionals were made aware of the intermediary report and recommendations within it.
- The intermediary intervened during evidence to ensure the defendant understood the questions that were being put to him.
As you’ve read above, the criminal justice system is a challenging place for young people, and it is important they get the support they need. Below is a list of strategies which may help a young court user with mental health difficulties to participate in legal proceedings:
- Create a less intimidating atmosphere. For example, counsel could remove wigs and gowns, first names could be used, and alternative seating arrangements could be implemented (e.g., seating all participants on the same level, or seating the defendant outside of the dock (if at Crown Court).
- A conference room could be reserved, so the court user has a guaranteed private place to rest when not in the courtroom.
- Strategies which reduce anxiety or assist the young person to better manage their mental health condition could be implemented. These are likely to be specific to the individual, and can be explored by the intermediary at the initial assessment stage. Strategies might include access to an emotional support animal, permission to wear a specific item during proceedings (e.g., We have assisted young autistic defendants who are better able to manage sensory sensitivities which would otherwise be emotionally dysregulating, by wearing ear defenders or a woolly hat).
- Use simplified language and explain complex concepts and legal terminology. For example, when the young person is giving evidence, they could simply promise to tell the truth rather than giving a formal oath/affirmation. This can help someone better understand what they are promising to do which helps to reduce anxiety.
- A screen or video link could be used when the young defendant is giving evidence.
- Regular breaks will give the defendant time to rest and process the evidence. They also give the defendant time to ask any questions to their legal team or point out any of the evidence they want to challenge.
By implementing these measures, courts can help young people with mental health difficulties navigate the legal system in a more effective way. It’s important to bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive and every young person attending court is different. A person-centred approach, starting by exploring their communication profile and coping strategies is therefore really important.
The Communicourt team recently attended the Vulnerable Accused conference at the University of Birmingham, where the participation of young defendants was a clear theme. Please find some interesting comments and research mentioned at this event below, for further reading:
- Case, S. and Hampson, K. Child First: examining children’s collaboration in the Youth Justice System (2022-24) Nuffield Foundation.
- Day, A-M. Comment: The Youth Justice System is Harming Neurodivergent Children (2022) The Conversation.
- Hollingsworth, K. Sentencing Remarks for Children: A New Approach, (2019) Newcastle Law School Research Briefing No.14.