06:32, March 24 63 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-24 06:32:05
public servant: my letter to the public  
 Vulnerable people won't get a fair hearing without support in court

Intermediaries like me are part of an unsung success story within the criminal justice system. It is my job to support children and vulnerable adults in police interviews and at trial. I am a communication specialist and make sure they are asked questions they understand and give the answers they want to give.

Last year, registered intermediaries (RIs) like me supported around 6,000 vulnerable people to give evidence. Our input helped them find the courage to do this, kept them going once they’d started, and made their evidence easier for juries to understand.

We’re a new profession that started about 10 years ago. We are a small band of around 135 people covering England and Wales and have already influenced change within the criminal justice system. Sadly, our funding is woefully inadequate and we can help a only tiny percentage of those entitled to our service. Our help falls far short of the 20,000 child sexual abuse cases that are reported to the police every year.

So much more could be achieved in providing equal access to justice if the scheme were properly resourced. We spend a lot of time, and arguably waste public resources, travelling huge distances. One week I went to south Wales, Wiltshire and Cornwall to assist with police interviews. Some intermediaries choose to work with defendants in family courts, or in Department for Work and Pensions appeals.

We are desperately short of male intermediaries, and have all sat with men as they are questioned about their abuse. It’s not always a problem. But surely it would be better, on such sensitive issues, to offer a choice between a man and a woman.

While many cases are handled sensitively, there is always the risk that people can’t explain themselves without our support. We are trained teachers, speech and language therapists, mental health nurses, psychologists. Some of our skills are quite niche. I have worked with many people with autism who are selectively mute, for example, and other RIs have used eye-blink technology with people who can no longer speak, or symbol communication systems for the adults with learning disabilities who were abused in their care homes. These are professional skills that take years to hone.

The needs of vulnerable people are often neglected and our skills can be underplayed. In part this is because our expertise is not always visible – people don’t see the hours of joint work with barristers that it takes to turn their six-page cross examination into two pages of child-friendly questions, with pictures to help understanding. Once those questions are well formulated, I’ll sit, with intense concentration, next to someone as they answer. I’ll be weighing up whether each question was understood, but I won’t necessarily need to say a word.

We spend hours waiting with people with autism before they go into court, trying to distract them. We manage precariously high levels of strain for adults on the verge of giving up, and spend time preparing visual props so that people can show, rather than tell, what happened. One of the worst parts of the job is public denigration in the court room. One barrister caustically called me Madam Interrupter to undermine me and win his case.

An overwhelming percentage of people in prison have speech, language and communication difficulties – too easily, they find themselves bewildered and without a voice in the criminal justice system, where the language and pace is almost impossible for many to understand. If you don’t understand the process of your trial, or have support to give your evidence, how can the trial be fair? Sometimes people are defendants because their vulnerability has been exploited.

As our profession comes of age, surely the public deserves a robust system of recruitment, training and quality assurance to ensure safety of provision within the law. Our work is part of an important re-evaluation of who, in our society, is “capable” of giving evidence and being heard. We urgently need greater resourcing – our best practice is superb – but the limitations of the scheme put the notion of justice in jeopardy.

  • Esther Rumble is a registered intermediary and member of Intermediaries for Justice

This series gives a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact kirstie.brewer@theguardian.com

Sign up for your free Guardian Public Leaders newsletter with comment and sector views sent direct to you every month. Follow us: @Guardianpublic

Looking for a job in central or local government, or need to recruit public service staff? Take a look at Guardian Jobs

Topics