Some parties or witnesses in proceedings may have difficulty communicating with people involved in the case and may have difficulty understanding the proceedings.

This may be due to a physical disability, learning difficulties, mental illnesses or other issues which affect someone’s ability to understand questions and articulate responses.

An intermediary is an impartial officer appointed by the court to assist a party in court. An intermediary is impartial and their duty is to the court. Intermediaries know court processes, vocabulary and concepts and are communication specialists. Intermediaries usually have backgrounds in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, education and psychology. The key responsibilities of intermediaries are:

1. Assessing the communication abilities and needs of the person before the court proceedings. This involves meeting them and those who know them well to gain an in-depth understanding of their needs.

2. Providing advice to legal professionals on adapting questioning and communication style to match the person’s abilities. This may include recommending avoiding complex vocabulary, breaking down complicated questions into smaller parts, allowing more time to respond, and using communication aids.

3. Facilitating communication during the proceedings. Sitting alongside the person, the intermediary provides support as needed, ensuring questions are clearly understood and responses are adequately conveyed.

4. Monitoring the person’s wellbeing and advising if they are struggling or need a break. Proceedings can be distressing and mentally taxing, so intermediaries play a vital safeguarding role.

In the recent case of West Northamptonshire Council v KA Ors [2024] EWHC 79 (Fam), Mrs Justice Lieven gave some useful guidance on the use of intermediaries in the Family Court:

Judges should only look at allowing intermediaries for the entire trial when there is a very strong, compelling reason. Intermediaries should not be appointed just in case the person needs help or to make things easier, there should be clear evidence that the person is unable to take part without an intermediary present the whole time.

The judge must give careful consideration to the facts and issues in the case. The judge must look very closely at both the individual’s specific communication needs and also what the court case is about, before deciding whether an intermediary is truly needed.

Intermediaries should only be appointed if there are reasons to do so. There should be very convincing and unavoidable reasons to justify appointing an intermediary. In determining whether to appoint an intermediary the Judge must have regard to whether there are other adaptations which will sufficiently meet the need. Before appointing an intermediary, the judge must consider if simple changes like allowing regular breaks, rephrasing questions etc would be enough to enable the person to properly take part.

Even if an expert or all parties recommend an intermediary, the final decision lies with the judge after looking at all factors of the specific case.