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Vulnerability in legal settings

Communication difficulties impact all aspects of life. Besides affecting decisions relating to education, work and social relations, communication difficulties also impact the ability to make informed legal choices, e.g. acknowledging guilt or maintaining innocence.


However currently, there is no legislation in the UK relating to special measures for vulnerable defendants and suspects. As a result, many go through the justice system not understanding the process, what is being said or the impact of the court proceedings. Vulnerable witnesses are provided for by the Ministry of Justice’s Witness Intermediary Scheme (WIS), which offers Registered Intermediaries to assist at investigation and trial. Until April 2022, there was no formal national scheme for suspects, defendants and other vulnerable people at tribunals and courts. However this disparity is now being addressed to some extent, by the introduction of Court Appointed Intermediaries who assist communication between vulnerable persons at courts and tribunals.  

Although Section 104 of the Coroners and Justice Act does allow for examination of a vulnerable defendant by an intermediary, it has not been implemented as yet. Appreciating this inconsistency, some judges have allowed for defendants to be examined using an intermediary e.g. R v Sevenoaks Youth court [2009] EWHC where the judge ruled that, “steps are necessary to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial, not just during the proceedings, but beforehand”. 

It is encouraging that Courts are increasingly catering for the communication and interaction needs of other vulnerable people in courts so their access to the Justice System is equitable.

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