Specialised communication assistance in justice contexts

Many witnesses or defendants are likely to be challenged by the language used in justice contexts, such as court trials, Family Group Conferences or police interviews. Some people may find understanding what is being said and participating particularly difficult due to their age or because they have difficulties with language or learning.

Speech-language therapists from TTANZ have carried out court-appointed ‘Communication Assistance’ roles for both witnesses and defendants in NZ. This has involved children, adolescents and adults across High Court, District Court and Youth Court settings. We have also assisted with the communication involved in Family Group Conferences, in Forensic Health assessments and probation assessments and in a tribunal.

TTANZ’s Court-appointed Communication Assistant service

Our Communication Assistant service involves one of our expert speech-language therapists being appointed by the Court to carry out a specialised assessment of the speech, language and communication skills of the person with a particular focus on how they are likely to manage the communication demands posed by a court context e.g. listening to, understanding and giving evidence, cross examination, instructing lawyers etc. Our assessment explores what enables them to communicate as easily as possible e.g. strategies that modify language, use of visual supports etc. A report detailing bespoke recommendations are sent to the Court for consideration. We may then be appointed as an Officer of the Court to act in a neutral, impartial role to assist all to communicate with the person in court proceedings.

The Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ team is part of a working party  chaired by a Judge, exploring how best to develop these Communication Assistant roles in NZ courts. Development of NZ protocols, processes, codes of ethics and conduct are underway and we are exploring how to develop a system of training and support for SLTs undertaking this new challenging work. We are also involved in a working party exploring the fitness to plea/fitness to stand trial process in a NZ Youth Court which involves exploring how Court-appointed Communication Assistants are being utilised.

Please contact us if you are looking for this sort of specialised support from a speech-language therapist in Court or other legal contexts. Information about our TTANZ Court Communication Assistant current process October 2019 can be downloaded, together with a TTANZ Court Communication Assistance referral form.

We also would like to hear from NZ SLTs who have provided this type of communication assistance for a victim, witness or defendant.

Other sources of information on this topic include:

  • Benchmark – a NZ website resource for legal professionals, including guidelines on Communication Assistants and on Questioning Children
  • Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson’s 2015 book called ‘Intermediaries in the criminal justice system: Improving communication for vulnerable witnesses and defendants.’ We could not recommend this book more highly. It explores the development of the UK intermediary service and is highly practical and informative. It is available here
  • Paula Backen’s 2017 book, They Just Don’t Get It: Communication and the Work of an Intermediary with vulnerable people in the justice system.
  • The Advocates’ Gateway website which is a UK resource developed for legal professionals which provides a wide range of practical toolkits.
  • Intermediaries For Justice (IFJ) is an organisiation of communication specialists such as Communication Assistants and Intermediaries
  • Our chapter titled, ‘Oral language and communication factors to consider when supporting people with FASD involved in the legal system’ in the following book, ‘Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in Adults: Ethical and Legal Perspectives: An overview on FASD for professionals. Editors: Nelson, Monty, Trussler, Marguerite (Eds.). Published by Springer.

How much of a problem is communication in legal contexts?

Oral communication difficulties have been identified in over 60% of young people in the criminal justice system in Australia and the UK (Bryan, Freer, and Furlong, 2007). Recent research (Lount, Purdy and Hand, 2017) from NZ also established that 64% of the young people assessed in a youth justice residcnce context had significant language impairment compared with only 10% of control peers.

Speech, language and communication needs pose problems for youth and their whānau, but also impact on professionals working with them. Both sides can have problems with communication. Many of us with excellent vocabularies and comprehension skills can be challenged by the language used in legal situations.

People may misunderstand what is said by police, lawyers, youth justice staff, Oranga Tamariki staff, and many others. These adults may believe that young people can understand easily and therefore adopt a communication style which is too complex. It can also be difficult for young people to clearly explain what they mean. This is often judged to be a reluctance, obstructive or unmotivated behaviour, or a lack of intelligence. Young people may not be aware of their own communication problems, or may be aware but cover them up. These difficulties with communication may go undetected and are often not obvious to either side.

Consequences: Poor communication skills impact hugely on young people’s involvement in the youth justice system. Consequences can be:

  • poor interaction with the police and other community services resulting in arrest
  • inability to give a good account of themselves resulting in a charge
  • poor understanding of legal processes and instructions, e.g. appointment requirements, court orders, remand and probation agreements
  • poor interaction with youth justice staff, and the inability to benefit from intervention programs as most of these involve talking
  • poor engagement in restorative practices such as Family Group Conferences.
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