Significant Court Case Highlights Importance of Intermediaries in Family Law Proceedings for Individuals with Communication Difficulties

Citation: [2024] EWHC 79 (Fam)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of West Northamptonshire Council (acting via Northamptonshire Children’s Trust) v KA concerns the use of intermediaries in family law proceedings to assist a party with profound communication difficulties. Mrs Justice Lieven presided over the case, which provided significant discussion on the appointment of intermediaries, the role they play in ensuring fair trial rights, and the necessary conditions for their use in a courtroom setting.

Key Facts

The underlying facts revolve around a 2.5-year-old girl, X, and the substantial procedural delays in care and placement order applications. The mother (M), who is profoundly deaf, has been at the center of an LA application for care and was represented for a final hearing wherein the necessity of a deaf intermediary was questioned.

During the final hearing scheduled for November 2023, the originally appointed deaf intermediary, Ms Z, did not attend due to a tragic family incident, which led to an adjournment. Upon rescheduling, the court considered the intermediary’s non-attendance and examined the continued need for a deaf intermediary for M throughout the imminent hearing.

The legal principles discussed in the case centre on the provisions concerning intermediaries in legal proceedings. The court referenced the definition of an intermediary per the Family Procedure Rules (FPR) r3A.1 and recognized the lack of specific guidance in family law compared to criminal justice, where Criminal Practice Directions 2015 offers more details.

Justice Lieven drew parallels to the Court of Appeal’s approach in R v Thomas (Dean) [2020] EWCA Crim 117, noting that while family and criminal cases differ, the rationale for appointing intermediaries remains consistent: ensuring the involved individuals can effectively partake in legal proceedings.

Several principles from R v Thomas and related case law were applied:

  • Intermediaries should be appointed only in rare circumstances;
  • The need for an intermediary must be weighed against other potential courtroom accommodations;
  • Advocates should adjust their questioning to accommodate witnesses;
  • Judges ensure that procedural adaptations do not compromise trial fairness;
  • The presiding judge is ultimately responsible for the decision on the necessity of an intermediary.

Outcomes

In the present case, despite the submission of expert evidence recommending the appointment of deaf intermediaries, Justice Lieven emphasized that the decision rests with the judge, who must consider the case specifics and the individual’s circumstances.

The court concluded that it was necessary to appoint a deaf intermediary for M for the entirety of the hearing. Mrs Justice Lieven recognized M’s profound communication difficulties, which extended beyond her deafness. Given the small pool of suitable deaf intermediaries and the complexity of British Sign Language interpretation, the role of a deaf intermediary was deemed indispensable for M’s understanding and participation in the proceedings.

Conclusion

The decision in West Northamptonshire Council v KA (Mother & Anor) underscores the tailored approach the judiciary must adopt to safeguard fair trial rights while circumventing unnecessary delays in family proceedings. The judge’s discretion plays a pivotal role in determining the measures necessary for facilitating effective participation, particularly for parties with significant communication challenges. Mrs Justice Lieven’s guidance aligns with principles established in precedents, maintaining an equilibrium between the integrity of the trial process and the rights of vulnerable individuals within the ambit of family law.

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