Celebrating the Ministry of Justice intermediary scheme

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Joyce Plotnikoff DBE

Celebrating intermediaries in the justice system and Intermediaries for Justice

Joyce Plotnikoff

Intermediaries – communication specialists – have brought about huge changes in the criminal justice system’s response to children and vulnerable adults and increased access to justice for these groups. On a case by case basis, since 2004 intermediaries on the Ministry of Justice register have helped improve the quality of evidence of thousands of children and vulnerable adults. Even more remarkably, their influence has influenced the approach of the judiciary and advocates to the vulnerable even where no intermediary is involved. This has been nothing short of a revolution.

Intermediaries come from a wide range of professional backgrounds but they have an outsider’s common-sense perspective, bringing lateral thinking to a criminal justice system notoriously set in its ways. Much of the intermediary’s work is done behind the scenes. Even justice system practitioners are likely to have little idea about the full spectrum of intermediary activities, or the creative ways they go about the task of supporting communication.

In a polite and persuasive way, intermediaries are pushing the traditional boundaries of court procedures. Two-thirds of judges surveyed in 2015 said that working with an intermediary had changed their practice. Principles arising from intermediary recommendations – setting ‘ground rules’ for cross-examination, reviewing questions in advance, not requiring vulnerable witnesses to watch their evidence at the same time as the jury and introducing them to the judge and to advocates – have become standard practice.

The former Lord Chief Justice, Baron Judge says that intermediaries have ‘introduced fresh insights’ and ‘improved the administration of justice… without a diminution in the entitlement of the defendant to a fair trial’ and that we have not yet ‘arrived at our final destination’ on their use. While the Ministry of Justice scheme derives from legislation and is restricted to vulnerable witnesses, judges have extended the role’s scope to appoint intermediaries for vulnerable defendants, in the family courts and in tribunals (these intermediaries, whether or not on the Ministry of Justice register, are treated as ‘non-registered’ when taking these appointments).

This growth in unregulated work is problematic, ad hoc and unfair to those with unmet communication needs who may interact with any aspect of the justice process. There is a pressing need for intermediary services across the board to be put on a sound and equitable footing in the interests of access to justice and human rights. Estimates about levels of unmet communication need indicate that a very significant increase in intermediary numbers is required. They must also be managed and supported more effectively: it is a demanding, isolated job and turnover is too high. Their work is the criminal justice system’s best ‘good news story’ yet media reports scarcely mention them. We need to increase public knowledge of their contribution.

The organisation ‘Intermediaries for Justice’ has established a sound base in its first few years, with committee members working hard behind the scenes, on a voluntary basis, to provide training, raise awareness, consult with other organisations and press for change. As the voice of all those who wish to see this new profession flourish, IfJ will undoubtedly play a key role in shaping future intermediary developments.

Joyce Plotnikoff DBE and Dr Richard Woolfson, September 2017

Honorary Members, Intermediaries for Justice; authors of ‘Intermediaries in the Criminal Justice System’ (Policy Press, 2015)


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