Working with Defendants

Research and role development

Docks “ guilty already?" In crown courts and many magistrates' courts, defendants are expected to sit in a locked and mostly glassed dock throughout the various hearings and trial. Aside from security dock officers and interpreters, intermediaries are the only court professionals who spend any length of time in a court dock. This side of the work of an intermediary with defendants can be intimidating; sitting behind a glass screen, beside a person who may well be convicted of serious crimes, with the door locked and the hard seats firmly screwed to the floor. These glass docks were introduced as recently as 2000 and there is no statutory requirement or judicial authority for their use in our courts.

Defendants are legally considered innocent until proven otherwise by British law, but that is not a feeling I recognise when I sit in the dock. Over time I have acclimatised to the experience, but I try not to forget my first impression, as for the defendant this will often be their first experience and it can be daunting. The defendant can usually hear better and potentially engage more fully in his trial if he is sitting in the main body of the courtroom, or at least in an open non-glass-enclosed dock.

Recently, in non-violent cases, I have been asking the judge to permit this alternative. The more comfortable chair, the availability of a desk to set out papers and visual aids and being present in the main part of the courtroom significantly changes the practical experience of a defendant. For a vulnerable person, often both a victim and a defendant, this may be the difference between being further traumatised, whatever the verdict, by the very justice system that is supposed to recognise their specific needs. Intermediaries have a role in standing up for those who cannot.

Paula Backen