Pioneer course will give vulnerable voice in court

April 25, 2003

The Inns of Court school of law will make criminal justice history this September when it trains 60 healthcare professionals as England and Wales'

first registered intermediaries.

Intermediaries were created by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to help people with severe communication difficulties give evidence.

Many of the witnesses could be children in cases of sexual assault or violence.

The role of intermediaries is controversial. The campaigning journalist Bob Woofinden wrote last year: "Examinations of witnesses through 'intermediaries' to assist those who might have difficulty in communicating are so bizarre and potentially disastrous that they have still not been implemented."

Mr Woofinden said that the legislation was passed in response to the case of Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie, the couple accused of abusing a large number of children at the Shieldfield nursery in Newcastle, whose libel victory last year cleared their names.

He argued: "The future introduction of 'intermediaries' - to give what is effectively hearsay evidence on behalf of vulnerable witnesses - will further undermine the defence."

But the Home Office has gone ahead with plans to introduce the intermediaries, and the school of law, part of City University, will be key to their success.

Penny Cooper, director of continuing professional development (CPD) at the school, said: "The role of the intermediaries is defined by a code of practice and a code of ethics produced by the Home Office. They have a duty to the court to say if they do not feel able to communicate with the witness."

David Wurezel, a CPD consultant to the school, said: "Intermediaries will be involved with the witnesses at three stages: at the investigative stage, at the pre-trial stage and during the trial."

He said their role was "very different from the role of interpreter and will require considerable skill. They are there to convey meaning."

Miss Cooper and Mr Wurezel, who are both practising barristers, believe that the intermediaries could improve justice for those who find it hard to be heard.

Mr Wurezel said: "In the past people with disabilities who have been abused have not been deemed cogent witnesses and so their cases have not gone to court. With an intermediary such cases are more likely to be able to proceed. We know the value of being able to ask a witness direct questions.

You want them to answer immediately before they have had time to think. It will be very interesting to see how the intermediaries work."

The Home Office is contacting professional bodies that deal with people with communications difficulties. It will then decide on candidates for the five-day course, which will include training in criminal law, procedure and ethics. The use of intermediaries will be piloted in Merseyside.

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