1. General questions
Why are intermediaries necessary?
Some vulnerable victims, witnesses and defendants need professional help with communication and understanding in order to give their best evidence. Intermediaries can assist them during an investigation and at trial, making the justice process accessible to some of the most vulnerable people in society. In many cases an intermediary will make the difference between a child or vulnerable adult being able to give their best evidence – or not.
What exactly do intermediaries do?
Having assessed the vulnerable person’s communication skills in detail, an intermediary can help the police plan their videoed interview, then assist interviewer and interviewee during that interview. The intermediary will facilitate pre-trial preparation such as a witness’ court familiarisation visit then help them and Counsel with communication during the trial itself.
Are intermediaries like interpreters?
Although intermediaries do facilitate two-way communication, they are distinct from interpreters who must translate questions and answers verbatim. Intermediaries have the responsibility of advising police, barristers and judges how a vulnerable person’s understanding can be assisted by modifying questions. They also enable them to express their answers in ways they can manage: this may even be through writing, drawing, pointing, signing or use of body language. Intermediaries do, on occasion, work in conjunction with foreign language interpreters and this has proved very successful.
What advantage is there in using an Intermediary over using an Appropriate Adult when interviewing a vulnerable witness?
The intermediary role is more wide-ranging than that of the Appropriate Adult who may already be familiar with a child or vulnerable adult. Appropriate Adults, witness supporters and Victim Support workers play a very different and vital role, offering emotional and practical support. However, the intermediary role must remain impartial in the interests of justice for all. And the most crucial difference is that the intermediary advises police officers and lawyers how to frame questions so that the witness can understand them.
Isn’t it better to do a police interview quickly? If we wait a bit to get an intermediary involved, won’t the witness forget stuff?
If a suspect is in custody and therefore can only be held for a limited period, there is understandable pressure to conduct a police interview of the victim and perhaps also of other vulnerable witnesses. If a Registered Intermediary is available to undertake an assessment and advise the interviewer before the videoed ABE, this is the ideal. If an RI cannot be sourced on the day, then it is better to defer an interview in order to give the police and RI maximum time to plan and prepare. By doing this, they will enable the witness to give best evidence, using the strategies and perhaps the aids which the RI will have recommended. A further advantage to this approach is that CPS is more likely to take forward to trial a case in which the police interview provided complete and coherent evidence; and judges and barristers are more readily persuaded of the value of an RI if one was used at police interview.
Can intermediaries test a witness’ understanding of what is the truth and what is a lie?
Police endeavour to ascertain if a witness understands truth and lies, whilst considering if their evidence is likely to be reliable. Many ways are used by interviewing officers to check this understanding; and some techniques work better than others with different types of vulnerable witness. Having assessed the understanding of a witness in detail, prior to their police interview, the intermediary is in a very good position to advise the officer what approach might work best when they test truth and lies. But they do not conduct that assessment themselves.
It is not essential for police to carry out this test in every case. Please see Common myths dispelled for further guidance.
Why must an officer or other official be present when an intermediary assesses a witness?
Crucially, intermediaries are independent. This is what enables them to advise police, lawyers and judges in an impartial way. They must not therefore concern themselves with evidence. Were they to spend time alone with a witness, for example during their communication assessment, and were the witness to offer additional evidence it would not be the responsibility of the intermediary to make a note of this.
If an intermediary has not been involved at police interview stage, is it necessary and appropriate to have an intermediary assist before and during trial?
Questions at cross-examination, and the whole experience of attendance at court, have the potential to be much more stressful than the non-confrontational circumstances of a police interview. The vulnerable witness may have great difficulty understanding and responding to questions in court or via Live Link in the absence of a Registered Intermediary who has provided a detailed report and recommendations about communication issues. Guidance is given to Judge and lawyers at a Ground Rules Hearing and Counsel is advised if a question may be too difficult for the witness to follow.
How are visual aids and other communication devices used at court?
If aids to communication have been used and found of benefit during the intermediary assessment, and these have been outlined in the report and agreed at Ground Rules Hearing, they can be employed with the witness and intermediary during cross-examination. Such aids may include signing or gesture, writing or pointing, or the use of cue cards, diagrams or drawings.
Can intermediaries, after assessing a victim, witness or defendants’ communication skills, advise police and lawyers about their intellectual capacity or their ability to give consent?
Although some intermediaries may work with those whose intellectual capacity is limited, in their role as impartial servants of the court they are not at liberty to present expert evidence at a trial. If a professional assessment of capacity and consent is required by the police or Crown Prosecution Service, the help of an Expert Witness must be sought. Such an expert may be questioned on their report at the trial.