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Child or vulnerable adult victim or witness

Vulnerable suspect or defendant


When a child or vulnerable adult has talked about a possible crime, or when a vulnerable person has been accused of doing something wrong, it can be a very anxious time for parents, partners or carers. They wonder what will happen and how the witness or suspect will cope if the case goes to court.

Each case is different, as is each vulnerable victim, witness and suspect. But here is a simple summary of the stages of a police investigation and trial.

Child or vulnerable adult victim or witness

Calling in the police

  • The child or vulnerable adult tells a family member, friend, school staff or key worker that something bad has happened. They may have been either the victim or a witness.
  • When contacted, the police visit them at home or in some other familiar setting. They ask for an informal account of what happened. This is not the detailed interview needed for a trial but is called a ‘first disclosure’.
  • Because they are a child or vulnerable adult, a Registered Intermediary (RI) may be requested by the police to help with their full interview.
  • The RI’s experience and skills are matched to the needs of the individual witness. Intermediaries come from a range of different professional groups. Some specialize in work with children. Some work with the elderly or those with a learning disability. Others have expertise in the field of mental health.
  • If the witness has a hearing loss, or if their first language is not English, they may also need an interpreter or signer.
  • The RI arranges to visit the child or vulnerable adult (always accompanied by a police officer) to assess them.
  • This assessment covers all aspects of communication including their level of understanding, their grasp of time and dates, and their ability to use speech or some other means to explain things. It may also be necessary to consider any mobility, health or sensory difficulties such as hearing impairment. Perhaps they have high levels of anxiety or a known mental health issue.
  • There are some vulnerable witnesses who use their own gestures and signs or an electronic aid in place of speech. Others use writing, pictures and diagrams to support what they say.
    UpsetPhysical Harm
  • RIs have in their ‘toolkits’ many kinds of visual aids to help witnesses during their assessments and interviews. Toys and other items can also be used in an informal way.
    Felt Body & ClothesPipe Cleaner Figures
  • After their assessment, the RI meets the officer again to plan the interview which will be recorded at a specially-equipped interview suite. The aim is to work together so the witness can give their most complete, coherent and accurate evidence.
  • The RI then assists at the interview. The officer may need help with the wording of their questions, and the witness with expressing their answers.

After the interview

  • After the assessment and interview, the RI writes a detailed report. When planning this, they may also speak with a teacher, carer, social worker or other person who knows the witness well.
  • The recorded interview and any other evidence are considered by the Crown Prosecution Service with the police, along with the RI report. An important two-stage test is applied: whether a trial would be in the public interest; and whether there is a reasonable chance of a conviction.
  • Court cases take time to put together. Delays can occur at any stage before and during a trial.
  • If it is agreed there should be a trial, the case is referred to the court. The RI report is received by the judge who decides if the intermediary will be with the witness when they are questioned in court about their evidence.
  • The judge calls for a ‘hearing’ in court at which the RI meets with the lawyers to talk about their report and its recommendations. At this hearing, it is agreed how communication with the witness will work best, and how the RI will help during cross-examination by the defendant’s lawyer.

Preparing for court

  • Before the trial date, a Witness Care Officer or the Young Witness Service may be in touch to explain more about the process.
  • There are two important visits to make before the trial. To reduce their anxiety about attending court, the witness is invited to see where they will give evidence. At court, they meet the Witness Service who will welcome and look after them. Often the RI is there too.
  • The witness may be questioned in the court room or from a Live Link room. They are usually given a choice before the trial; and the RI and others help with this. This pre-trial visit gives a chance to practise communicating in court or via a TV screen.
  • Some children and vulnerable adults feel anxious and ‘small’ when lawyers wear their wigs and black gowns. Others do not mind. They are asked what they would prefer. One child drew a picture about feeling anxious at court.
    Barrister & Witness
  • The second important visit comes just before cross-examination – sometimes a day or two before. The witness watches the recording of their interview, to refresh their memory. A police officer is there, and very often the RI too.
  • While the witness is at court, arrangements can be made to avoid them meeting the defendant. For example, they may arrive by a side door. All this has to be planned in advance of the trial.

The trial

  • It helps to take along snacks and a game, magazine, colouring, iPad or whatever the witness prefers, to keep busy while waiting.
  • If in doubt about anything, parents and carers should not be shy to ask. The investigating officer or Witness Service should be able to answer most questions.
  • When the trial starts, the jury and others in the courtroom must watch the recorded interview because this is used in place of reading a written statement.
  • After that, the witness is cross-examined. If in the court room, a screen may be pulled across so they are out of view of the defendant; and the RI stands beside them. It is their job to help lawyers make their questions easy to understand; and to help the witness if their answers are hard to follow.
  • These days, children and many vulnerable adults give evidence from a separate Live Link room, via a TV screen. This way, they only see the face of the person asking questions, and are spared seeing the whole court.
  • The witness and RI sit side by side facing the TV screen. The RI helps lawyers to make their questions clear and simple; and helps the witness if they struggle to be understood.
  • After their cross-examination the witness can leave the court building.

At the end of the trial

  • When the jury has made a decision, the investigating officer tells the witness and carer if the defendant was found guilty or not guilty.

Vulnerable suspect or defendant

The police are called in

  • The police are contacted to say someone may have committed a crime.
  • An officer goes to meet that ‘someone’ (the suspect) and may arrest them. If so, they are taken to a police station and told their rights. (These can be found in Code C of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act.) The suspect is interviewed ‘under caution’.
  • A parent, partner or carer should tell the police if the suspect has communication difficulties or other special needs. When a vulnerable suspect is being interviewed, they should have an ‘Appropriate Adult’ with them. They may also have a legal adviser present.
  • The interview is usually audio-recorded. Sometimes it is videoed as well. A written ‘transcript’ of this interview is later given to the court.

After the interview

  • If the suspect is charged with an offence they are then called a ‘defendant’ and told they must attend court. They may be ‘bailed’ before the trial. Bail conditions can vary but the defence solicitor should be able to answer questions about what has been decided and what may happen next.
  • If they struggled to understand questions or give a clear account to the police, a communication assessment by an intermediary may be requested by the defendant’s solicitor. Sometimes this happens even earlier.
  • If the court has agreed to an intermediary being involved, plans are then made for them to meet the defendant. The intermediary’s experience and skills are matched to the needs of the individual defendant.
  • Intermediaries come from a range of different professional groups. Some specialise in work with young people. Some work with the elderly or those with a learning disability. Others have expertise in the field of mental health.
  • The defendant may need help talking with their lawyer and understanding what is being said. The intermediary will consider if supporting materials such as communication aids are needed for this.
  • If the defendant has a hearing loss, or if their first language is not English, they may also need an interpreter or signer.
  • The intermediary assessment covers all aspects of the defendant’s communication skills, their grasp of time and dates, and their ability to use speech or some other means to explain things. It may also be necessary to consider any mobility and relevant health issues. Perhaps there are high levels of anxiety or a known mental health problem.
  • Some vulnerable defendants use their own gestures and signs or an electronic aid in place of speech. Others use writing, pictures and diagrams to support what they say.
  • The intermediary then sees the transcript of the defendant’s interview, to consider what communication difficulties occurred at that early stage. If available, they may also have access to the audio or video recording.
  • They may speak with a key worker, doctor, social worker or other person familiar with how the defendant communicates. The defence solicitor might also have obtained Expert Witness reports on the defendant. These too may be read. The intermediary then writes a full report for the court.

Preparing for court

  • Court cases take time to put together and delays can occur at any stage. There can be some waiting around at court, even when efforts are made to avoid this.
  • If in doubt at any point about what is happening, parents and carers must not be shy to ask. The defence solicitor should be able to answer most questions.
  • The intermediary may be invited to meetings between the defendant and lawyers during the weeks and months before the trial. This is to be sure that questions and answers are understood.
  • A request is made to the court to use the intermediary again at trial. The judge then decides if the defendant will be cross-examined in the court room or via a Live Link from somewhere else. If they are young, they may even be sat within the court room behind their defence lawyers.
  • The judge calls for a ‘hearing’ in court at which the intermediary meets with the lawyers to talk about their report and its recommendations. It is agreed how communicating with the defendant will work best, and how the intermediary will help. If visual aids, signing, a communication device or any other support were used during the intermediary assessment, these may also be used in court if the judge and lawyers agree.

The trial

  • In most trials, the defendant must be present from the start to the end. And in some cases the intermediary helps by supporting two-way communication throughout the trial.
  • If the defendant is being held in custody then the judge may permit the intermediary to be present when the lawyer visits them in the cells.
  • When the trial starts, the intermediary usually sits with the defendant in the dock, to be sure they can follow what is being said. They explain what is happening and advise the court when the defendant needs an extra break.
  • If the defendant is sat in the court room (or somewhere outside of the court), the intermediary usually sits with them.
  • In some trials, the judge decides that the intermediary will only support communication during the defendant’s cross-examination.
  • When the defendant is cross-examined, most often in the witness box, the intermediary stands beside them or beside the box. Both are in view of the judge, lawyers and jury and the intermediary supports two-way communication as before.

At the end of the trial

  • The jury make their decision when they have seen and heard all the evidence and listened to speeches by lawyers and the judge. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge must decide on the type or length of the sentence. The intermediary may be asked to help explain these decisions to the defendant.
  • If the defendant is found not guilty, then they are free to go.

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