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Esther intermediary prop
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Providing a voice for the voiceless at court

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First hand account of the work of Registered Intermediaries who help vulnerable people give evidence in court.

After last week’s Victims’ Commissioner report, A Voice for the Voiceless, today’s blog post is a first-hand account of her work by Registered Intermediary Esther Rumble. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Hidden cog in the wheels of justice

Frank* had an unsual way of talking. A young man with severe autism and a very limited means of verbal communication, he disclosed to a teacher something that had happened to him. He needed a highly specialist approach to facilitate him to communicate his thoughts and explain things. Frank drew pictures to show what had happened to him, adding simple words to convey actions, feelings and things that had been said to him. His communication differences meant that he needed very particular support in order to do this, and I worked with the police officer who interviewed him to establish if the claims of abuse required prosecution. It’s safe to say that it took lots of careful, autism-friendly, planning to help Frank prepare to do this, and it’s also, I think, true that his communication difficulties are such that his voice wouldn’t have been heard within the criminal justice system until quite recently.

I work as a registered intermediary. Most people haven’t heard of us. We’re a hidden cog in the wheels of justice. A relatively new profession, we work with the police and courts as communication specialists to ensure adults with communication difficulties or very young children give the best evidence possible to police and in court. We don’t tell people what to say or to take sides. We may help courts to interpret an eye-blink machine, or encourage police officers to use post-it notes to help people put events into the order they happened, or suggest paper gingerbread men as a prop for a very young child to provide evidence in a sexual abuse case, giving them a way to show just where they were touched. As impartial specialists, registered intermediaries make sure everyone has a voice in our justice system, whatever their age, health or communication difficulties.

A prop used with children to facilitate evidence gathering

Victim’s Commissioner report

This week (17 January 2018) the Victims’ Commissioner published a report, A Voice for the Voiceless, shining a light on the work of communication specialists in the justice system. Baroness Newlove’s review points to our potential to create change for good in courts and at police interviews. She speaks passionately, and from a strong evidence base of our ability to facilitate a voice to those like Frank, previously assumed silent. The report also demands radical changes to the service. A call for the creation of more communication specialist posts, the establishment of a supportive structure for us to work within and better provision for very young children who are increasingly required to give police interviews. All things myself and colleagues have been crying out for- for some time now.

The youngest known child who has so far given evidence to police and which resulted in a guilty plea was a child of two years old. Very young- but still able to say what happened, with the right support.  The legal system is full of mystery and jargon at the best of times. When it’s a toddler in police interview and things need to be done in a different way. Or with an adult with say, a stroke or head injury or suffering post traumatic stress disorder, it is essential the lawyers, judge, and police officers adapt their way of talking. I’ve been a Speech and Language Therapist for many years. My specialism is autism and communication breakdown. In police investigations I advise on language and grammar, questioning style, I sit next to someone as they explain in court what has happened. In a legal system full of mystery and jargon, my entire focus is to ensure understanding and clarity on all sides.

Defendants often face the same challenges as witnesses

Many of the people I work with have had a rough ride. They can find themselves as a defendant one day, a complainant the next. They might have grown up in confused households, where it was unclear what the boundaries for safe or lawful behaviour were. Over the years, I’ve learnt that defendants very often face the same challenges as witnesses. In my opinion the kind of support being called for by the new report for victims and witnesses should also apply for vulnerable defendants. I also can’t help thinking of children and adults going through the family courts, or people with autism and other disabilities, struggling to get their voice heard and needs recognized with the DWP. The scope for Registered Intermediaries to support equal access to justice is vast.

 …..the friendly judge and people with their itchy wigs

So what’s a typical day like? In court, I’ll meet both defence and prosecution barristers to match their questions to the needs of a witness, and talk to the judge to explain what is needed.  I sit with the child (having got them comfy in their chair, explaining how the ‘Livelink’ works and introducing them to the friendly judge and people with their itchy wigs). If I’m with an adult with autism I watch them like a hawk, alert to any clues they haven’t understood. If they have misunderstood, I tell the Judge, and we try again.

Many kids and people with learning disabilities are surprisingly clear communicators. Like Frank. It was suggested to him in court that these things never happened.  He told the judge, ‘It did you know. That man must have just forgotten, may be he doesn’t remember because he’s old.’ 

‘I don’t think I could have done it on my own’

On a good day, I feel like I have facilitated something that might not have otherwise have happened. It’s a team approach, and great to get encouragement and feedback from the police officers I work with (‘the CPS wouldn’t have taken this case forward if it wasn’t for your report’), the barristers (‘you’ve made it so much clearer’), the Judges (‘thank you for your deft touch in a very tricky situation’) — as well as the children, adults and their families I work with (‘I don’t think I could have done it on my own’).

The culture has changed in courts and police interviews.  In the nine years I’ve worked in the system, it’s becoming standard for lawyers to share their questions with me, often making questions clearer or more direct according to my suggestions. With the Judge’s agreement, I can make some very practical changes; for example, if I know what will be asked, I can prepare people with autism with a tick-list of questions, so they know how much longer they have to concentrate for. It makes it possible to use diagrams and pictures so that people can point to what part of the body was touched, making it very obvious what happened. This is how the once voiceless can give their best evidence. It’s not about putting words into people’s mouths, it’s about impartially enabling them to express themselves, how they wish to.

The difficult days are stinkers and utterly frustrating. The Ministry of Justice hosts and co-ordinates the scheme, but they have insufficient funding to organize, oversee and develop it. There just aren’t enough communication specialists to go round — we take about 6000 cases a year but around 250 go unmatched every year. I’ve been offered five cases this week that I can’t take.  I’ve driven to Swansea (twice) and then to Devon (once) to support people, despite living in Somerset, and I’m off to London after that. Even worse is when delays, adjournments and miscommunications (defendant not brought from prison for his trial, whilst a witness with autism has been carefully introduced to the courtroom over several weeks beforehand) get in the way.

….left alone to deal with the emotional impact

Practically, I only get paid for the hours I work, and so a series of cancellations can be disastrous. Even worse, for me, is when I hear of people leaving the profession because they felt exposed and unsupported in a role where you are very much on your own. Unlike police or barristers, we don’t go back to a shared office and can be left to deal alone with the emotional impacts of evidence (small children witnessing murder or abuse, grown men made to work as modern day slaves and manipulated for their benefits and bodies).

The Voice for Voiceless report by Baroness Newlove is a welcome acknowledgement of our work to promote equal access to justice for the vulnerable. Now we need to see the recommendations put into action.

 

Esther Rumble has worked as a Registered Intermediary for nine years. She is a member of Intermediaries for Justice.

 

* Frank, not his real name.

 

Blog posts in the Criminal Justice category are kindly sponsored by Get the Data which provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society. GtD has no editorial influence on the contents of this site. See further details below.

 

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