More evidence of the need for speech pathologists in the justice system

WARNING: This story discusses incidents of self-harm.

A recent ABC article about the case of a teenager in Western Australia highlights the need for all people with communication needs to have access to an intermediary during legal proceedings.

In the ABC article, it is reported that the teenager may have developmental language disorder (DLD), affecting his ability to process language, and the court transcript indicates his difficulty understanding what was being said to him, likely contributing to a later suicide attempt.

“It is vital that the police and courts consider the communication needs of people when interacting with them in the justice system,” said Speech Pathology Australia’s Senior Advisor Justice, Mary Woodward.

“This case is an example of the up to 90% of people in contact with the justice system who have speech, language and communication needs. Introducing speech pathologists as intermediaries can help overcome communication difficulties during police interviews and court processes.

“Intermediaries have expertise in communication and are specially trained. Although intermediaries are recruited from a range of professional backgrounds, the majority are certified speech pathologists. They act as impartial officers of the court to support the communication between an individual with communication needs and legal professionals during police interviews and trials.

“Despite recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Western Australia has not yet introduced an intermediary scheme, and of the Australian states and territories that have, only the ACT currently has intermediaries available to defendants.”

"Acting as intermediaries, speech pathologists have specialised skills to support people with DLD and other communication needs and can assist to develop strategies to help them understand language, such as in this case,” said Mary.


Impact within the justice system

Speech, language and communication needs can negatively impact an individual’s participation at every stage of the justice system, such as:

during police investigations or trial (e.g., difficulty understanding or responding to questions, or explaining what happened)

participating in restorative justice conferences or conflict resolution meetings engagement in therapeutic treatment programs (e.g., cognitive behaviour therapy, anger management, or sex-offender treatment programs)

engagement with educational and vocational programs (i.e., acquiring education certificates, or taking part in workplace skills training or literacy programs).

Find out more about speech pathology in justice

About DLD

DLD is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting how the brain processes language and affects 1 in 14 people globally. A recent Australian prevalence study found 6.4% of children with DLD at 10 years of age. DLD is a hidden disability that makes talking and listening difficult and is a permanent, lifelong disability.

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