There and back again – Our South Australian Journey. The use of skilled communication partners in the criminal justice space

Ms Jennifer Jacobs1, Ms Cheryll Rosales1

1Uniting Communities, Adelaide, South Australia

Background:
Our adversarial legal system puts those with complex communication needs (CCN), stemming from disability, illness or injury at significant disadvantage. The Evidence Act 1929 (SA) s4 says that a person will be taken to have complex communication needs ‘if their ability to give evidence is significantly affected by a difficulty to communicate effectively… whether the communication difficulty is temporary or permanent and whether caused by disability, illness, injury or some other cause.’ The Communication Partner Service (the Service),funded until February 2020 by the SA Attorney General’s Department, was created to fulfil some of the priority actions identified in the Disability Justice Plan 2015 – 2017 (the Plan). The Plan highlighted significant gaps in the system, such as inadequate support for those with CCN to give evidence.

Method:
The Service utilises highly skilled volunteers who hold tertiary qualifications in relevant fields and have extensive experience working with people with disabilities, a lived experience of disability and/or experience in the criminal justice space. They help facilitate effective communication between individuals with CCN and criminal justice personnel by making suggestions for reasonable communication adjustments.

Suggestions for reasonable communication adjustments are made in several ways. The Communication Partner will speak to the client and any people who are there to support them at the interview or legal meeting. They will ask about strategies that work best for them, how they best communicate, and what they need in order to communicate successfully. Suggestions for adjustments are then discussed verbally with the interviewing officer before the meeting or interview begins. During breaks more adjustments may be recommended, and after the meeting the Communication Partner will follow up with a written report that will outline adjustments recommended during the meeting along with any additional recommendations that may
be useful in future meetings.

Communication Partners support the giving of evidence at police interviews, in legal meetings and during court proceedings.

Results:
Many criminal justice personnel have interactions where they are unaware that their approach hinders good communication. They do not realise that it is how they are asking questions can affect the perceived reliability of a witness. Without communication adjustments those with CCN find it difficult to engage effectively in the criminal justice process. With adjustments to how information is presented people with CCN have increased capacity to provide best evidence and accessing justice becomes achievable. Since July 2016 the Service has had over 250 contacts with the criminal justice sector.

Implications:
The Communication Partner Service is ending, there has been no identified replacement service. Through case studies, we share reasonable adjustments to common questioning styles that have worked for us while supporting at legal meetings, interviews and at court. We are hoping that family, friends, and those with lived experience will be able to take what we have learned and be the communication assistants in this space.


Biography:

Jen Jacobs works with the Communication Partner Service at Uniting Communities. She worked as a speech pathologist for 16 years in a variety of settings, including rehabilitation with adults with acquired brain injury and community health with children and families. Jen holds qualifications in Speech Pathology and Volunteer Management.

Cheryll Rosales currently works with the Communication Partner Service at Uniting Communities. She is a Developmental Educator and was a teacher of students with special needs for ten years, specialising in functional life skills, positive behaviour support and AAC. Cheryll holds qualifications in Education, Law and International Relations.

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