Mini case studies
Introduction by Kev Smith, National Advisor
It has been a privilege for me to work with Registered Intermediaries over the last ten years. I have always been impressed with their commitment and drive to secure access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society. Their assessments for police and courts are not only informative but often suggest some very creative approaches to communication issues that others in the Criminal Justice System may have found difficult or impossible.
Registered Intermediary participation in the police interview, and the planning process that precedes it, is absolutely vital if the witness is to achieve their best evidence.
My advisory role means that the kind of cases on which I have assisted investigative teams, with the assistance of Registered Intermediaries, have often been the most distressing in terms of the trauma and impact that they have had on vulnerable people. These have included the following:
- murders witnessed by very young children and adults who have a learning disability
- the sexual abuse of children by organized and disorganized networks of abusers
- the sexual abuse of children by a relative
- the sexual abuse of adults with a physical disability
- the sexual abuse of adults with mental health issues
- the attempted murder of elderly people with dementia
- the trafficking of people with learning disabilities for the purposes of sexual exploitation
- the physical and sexual abuse of adults with learning disabilities, either by a relative or in residential settings
- the financial exploitation of elderly witnesses with dementia
The contribution of intermediaries has rightly been recognized by the government in publications such as the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime; by the Crown Prosecution Service in its legal guidance; and by the courts in documents such as the most recent Criminal Practice Directions.
Dr. Kevin Smith, BA (Hons), MA, PhD, CPsychol
National Vulnerable Witness Adviser, ACPO Approved Interview Adviser
Each of the following studies, which illustrate some of the work of intermediaries, is a composite based on a range of cases.
Sheila, a 45-year-old woman with Cerebral Palsy and learning disability and living in supported accommodation, alleged her purse had been stolen when she was out shopping. Sheila had moderately good understanding but her speech was extremely difficult to follow due to her Cerebral Palsy. After a detailed assessment of her communication abilities, at the request of the police, the Registered Intermediary (RI) met with the interviewing officer for joint planning before supporting Sheila’s video recorded interview.
Although the RI role is not to generate questions at interview, s/he is empowered to assist both witness and police when either questions or answers are not understood. Co-working between police and RI worked very well in this case. The RI organized communication aids including familiar symbols and picture boards. She also helped the officer to keep his questions simple so that Sheila’s replies could be short. At times it was necessary to help the interviewer when Sheila’s speech sounds or longer words were hard to follow.
Following the interview, the RI wrote a full report on Sheila’s communication difficulties and also noted the problems that had arisen at interview. This report was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service who considered all the evidence obtained, including Sheila’s videoed interview, and made an application to the Court for further assistance from the RI at the trial.
At the trial, with the RI’s support of two-way communication, Sheila was able to answer the questions put to her; and the lawyers and jury were enabled to understand her evidence. She stated that she could not otherwise have managed.
The jury found the defendant, an ex neighbour, guilty.
Lucy was 6 years old and attended a mainstream school. She needed to give evidence in court about alleged sexual abuse, having disclosed details some months before in a videoed interview. The DVD was in place of the written statement that an adult with no difficulties would have provided. Although she at first appeared to be functioning as a typical child of her age, in her police interview Lucy had not understood some adult vocabulary, sentence structures and certain question types such as ‘Why did you not tell your mother before?’.
At the request of the Crown Prosecution Service, an RI visited Lucy at home and assessed her communication skills in depth. This she did in the presence of a police officer, then wrote a report on her findings. She recommended how Lucy could best be cross-examined within the constraints of her language skills. The RI also proposed the use at court of some simple visual aids to support Lucy’s narrative. These visual aids, also used at the assessment, included a small wooden doll, line drawings of furniture and some simple pictures which Lucy herself had drawn. All of these been helped Lucy to ‘anchor’ her thoughts to the places and events she described.
The RI met with judge and barristers in advance of the trial at a Ground Rules Hearing to explain her recommendations and proposed visual aids. She then sat alongside Lucy during cross-examination via a live TV link. If the barrister’s questions were too complex, the RI was empowered to advise on use of simpler phrases. At times, alternative words were suggested and in this way the process of two-way communication went more smoothly. Lucy used the visual aids when needed; and found it helpful to point to the pictures she had drawn. One was her ‘request’ for questions to be asked more slowly so she could think.
Lucy’s uncle was found guilty of sexual abuse.
Donald had Motor Neurone Disease which severely affected both his mobility and his speech. He was 52 years old.
On returning slowly along the pavement from the barber’s shop, he witnessed a brutal attack on a local woman who was frail and unable to defend herself. Donald could not come to her rescue because of his own condition but dialled 999; and an ambulance and police arrived soon after.
The woman sustained very severe head wounds so spent many weeks in hospital. Donald was the only witness, but his speech difficulties made it extremely hard to give evidence that was audible and intelligible at his first videoed interview. National Crime Agency was contacted by the interviewing officer and an RI was requested.
The RI assessment involved testing of volume and clarity of Donald’s speech; and assessing the relative intelligibility of phrases of different lengths. It was useful to compare the effectiveness of Donald’s when seated in different positions, and with the microphone at different distances. lastly there was discussion of the timing of his medications during the day. The RI and officer planned a second police interview, to be held at a time to suit Donald’s medication regime. Donald was then enabled to give a more intelligible account of the attack.
Before the trial, some months later, the RI met the judge and barristers at a Ground Rules Hearing, to consider Donald’s mobility limitations, his drug regime, optimal times for giving evidence, and other factors which tended to affect his speech. On the day of cross-examination, Donald and a portable microphone would be positioned optimally in the video link room to enable him to be heard in the court. The RI would advise barristers how to rephrase some questions, if need be, so that his answers need not be long and complex.
In the event, having viewed Donald’s interview DVDs on the day of trial, the two defendants pleaded guilty. They could see that he was determined to give clear evidence, against all the odds.
Eleven-year-old Vicky’s autism spectrum difficulties made it hard to fit in with other children: she was always on the outside of groups. It felt easier talking with grown ups. One thing she felt good at was drawing. At home and in every school break, she’d draw different breeds of dogs.
On the way to the corner shop, she often met a friendly man who always looked at her pictures or gave her a sweet. It was great being the centre of attention. When he invited her to see his own pictures, she remembered about not going with strangers – but this man wasn’t a stranger any more. She got in his car: he said it wasn’t far.
Vicky found the house very messy but his photos of animals and birds were brilliant. He offered her a drink then took her into a second room where the curtains were closed. When Vicky asked to go home, the man’s tone changed completely. She was told to drink up and undress.
Found wandering in the streets far from home, dazed and frightened and without her coat, Vicky had extreme difficulty explaining to the police what had happened. She found their questions very hard to follow.
An RI was called in to assess her communication difficulties and advise the police before they interviewed her on video. Talk of a police video made Vicky panic that they wanted to film her like the man had done. The police interviewer and RI worked together to reassure her, and slowly but surely she was enabled to give details of the man, the car, the dark room and what happened in it.
The man was identified and charged and a trial date was set for ten months later. In the meantime, the RI had written a report. She met the judge and lawyers to explain aspects of Vicky’s many communication difficulties. It was agreed she could sketch details if that helped; and this she did on two occasions during her cross-examination. The RI sat beside her in a Live Link room, helping both the Defence lawyer and Vicky when difficulties arose with questions or answers.
The trial was long; and Vicky learnt later that other children had gone to see photos at the messy house. The judge and jury at court had listened to what she said and were grateful for her help. Vicky drew this picture for the RI to say thank you and the police passed it on.
The man was one of a ring of men involved in child pornography.
Tom, aged 85, had a severe stroke which left him paralysed down the right-hand side. He struggled to talk except in single words and a few short phrases, and he had some hearing difficulties.
While living in his own bungalow, with much community support, Tom discovered that a care worker had been stealing money when ‘helping’ by collecting his pension from the bank each week. He reported this and the police were called. With gesturing and waving of his bank book, Tom told a woman police officer what in essence had happened. She realised, having now met Tom, that she would have extreme difficulty interviewing him. But he was clearly eager to tell his story and have the support worker brought to book.
A male RI was requested and went with the police officer to visit Tom, check the extent of his difficulties with understanding and speech, and find out more about his hearing. It was possible for Tom to communicate in a range of ways in spite of the language difficulties caused by his stroke. Strategies employed included pictures, rough sketching by Tom, use of an alphabet board and number chart, availability of everyday objects for pointing; and questioning in very short bursts to avoid tiredness. The RI sat very close to Tom so that he would be able to lip read whenever he failed to hear a question.
Officer and RI then planned an interview together. Tom worked with huge concentration and determination to give his evidence, with the intermediary by his side. In the event he used lip reading, gestures, a very rough sketch, visual aids provided by the RI plus some items pulled from the bag on his wheelchair. This videoed interview spanned much of a whole day, including breaks; and a lot of evidence was obtained.
The case did not reach court which was a disappointment to Tom, the officer and the intermediary who had all worked very hard. This was one person’s word against another so some supporting evidence was necessary for court. His bank book showed regular, sizeable withdrawals about which Tom had no knowledge. But unfortunately the CCTV at the bank had been faulty so the support worker was not caught on camera using the ‘hole in the wall’.
Despite his disappointment, Tom was pleased he had been able to explain to the police what happened. His evidence could be used in the future should the young woman be caught taking advantage of another elderly person.
An intermediary was asked to assist with communication of a defendant at a trial involving a 39 year-old man. Steve had a learning disability, had attended special needs schools and was unable to read or write. His language levels, including understanding and expressing himself, were similar to those of a child in Junior School.
Steve had been charged with possession of a large quantity of stolen goods. Although he pleaded guilty to this charge, he maintained that he had been asked to look after the items by a friend.
The intermediary prepared a report for the court, including the results of his assessment of Steve’s communication abilities. He would have difficulty understanding the import of what was said to him; for example, and his ability to use reasoning skills was poor. Steve was also easily distracted, unassertive and had limited ability to express his opinions.
In considering the sentence for this defendant who had admitted guilt, the Judge took account of the intermediary report and also read psychologist and probation reports. He ruled that Steve had been taken advantage of by a more forceful and manipulative personality, and that he would also find it extremely difficult to cope with the prison environment. He therefore imposed a suspended sentence. The co-defendant, who had no such difficulties, was sent to prison.
The main purpose of the intermediary report is to provide guidance for communication during the course of a trial, including cross-examination where this applies. In this case an enlightened judge had also noted how the defendant’s stated difficulties had affected his behaviour.
On occasion, if a trial is long or if more than one vulnerable defendant is involved in a case, intermediaries may need to work in parallel. Prior to one such trial, it was agreed that two intermediaries would share responsibility for support of two-way communication at court. Each had additional work that would require them to be absent from court on certain days.
Mandy, a young woman with learning and slight hearing difficulties, was assessed jointly by the two intermediaries who found she had several problems following questions or statements, and expressing herself clearly. They then wrote a report on Mandy’s communication skills and needs; and later attended a Ground Rules Hearing at which the report was discussed with the judge and barristers. Sound levels, as well as Mandy’s comprehension difficulties and short attention span, were all considered.
During cross-examination, one intermediary stood next to her in the witness box, while the other sat just behind. A plan had been devised and agreed with the court that they would swap over at convenient moments, namely during the frequent breaks. They were able to communicate with each other at such times, either verbally or by passing written notes with comments or ideas to assist.
Working jointly in this way required careful planning, and regular de-briefing. Meeting together proved invaluable, not only for keeping up with the progress of the trial but also by providing an opportunity to reflect and discuss possible strategies to assist communication with this young and vulnerable defendant.
The value-added nature of the involvement of intermediaries has been acknowledged by police, lawyers, judges and carers. In certain long and complex cases, working together as described above can add a further, positive dimension.
Andrew was in his late teens and had already experienced many difficulties through his life. Severe health problems, which had been poorly managed over the years, resulted in many hospital stays, erratic school attendance, low academic achievements and limited literacy. His attention span was extremely limited, his verbal reasoning poor, and his behaviour erratic. However, when helping his grandfather on their allotment or with DIY jobs, Andrew seemed ‘a different boy’.
Never having been in trouble with the police before, but having experienced poor anger management at school, Andrew lost his temper one day and was arrested by the police for punching a younger neighbour and trashing his bedroom.
Before the trial, Andrew’s Defence barrister and solicitor discussed how he might have extreme difficulty coping with a court appearance, would be likely to misunderstand challenging cross-examination questions, and could also have trouble concentrating for long enough to give his best evidence. An intermediary was sought.
At first, Andrew was suspicious of the need for an assessment of his listening skills and ability to express himself. But when he understood that an intermediary’s role is to make sure people understand questions at court, he was able to talk about his fear of attending the trial, meeting strangers and feeling out of his depth.
Having watched the intermediary assessment, the solicitor was able to confirm to Andrew’s barrister that he really would struggle at court if giving evidence alone. The intermediary submitted a detailed report to the court; was asked to meet with the judge and barristers for an early Ground Rules Hearing at a Youth Court; and was then present when Andrew was cross-examined.
On account of his very limited attention, the intermediary had recommended that Andrew be permitted to give his evidence via video link from a side room. Although this was not common practice, the judge agreed. Two-way communication between Andrew and the Prosecution barrister were supported by the intermediary on the day; and the judge commended Andrew for coping with the alien experience of cross-examination. Andrew, in turn, was heard to comment that he could not have managed without the intermediary.