On 20th June I attended the first Advocate’s Gateway International Conference on Addressing Vulnerability in Justice Systems, hosted by the Advocacy Training Council. It was a full day conference which took place at The Law Society building on Chancery Lane.

The Advocacy Training Council (ATC) is established by the Council of the Inns of Court. It is responsible for providing leadership, guidance and coordination in relation to the pursuit of excellence in advocacy.

The programme began with opening remarks by Mr Justice Green, Chairman of the ATC. This was followed by a keynote address from Professor David Ormerod QC. Professor Ormerod presented the Law Commission project on Unfitness to Plead, which is due to be published this Autumn. He submitted that the present state of the law is wholly unsatisfactory. As a result, the Law Commission is proposing a change from the current position (i.e. the question of “is this person unfit to plead?”) to a more focussed test which looks at whether a person can participation effectively in their trial.

There was an overall theme of highlighting the difficulties faced by vulnerable witnesses, together with the presentation of research into how those difficulties can be addressed.

I now have a much clearer understanding of how I would approach a vulnerable witness (whether or not they were my client), how to improve my own advocacy skills, and the services available to help.

In total there were three panel sessions. “Child Witnesses – Trauma and Trial” was delivered by Vicki Bahen, Michelle Mattison, Dr Kimberley Collins and Camille Warrington. Each gave a summary of their own research on this area. “Vulnerable, Accused and Convicted” was delivered by Dr Brendan O’Mahony, Conor Gillespie, Dr Clare Allely and Jenny Talbot OBE. The final panel, “Poor Relations? Vulnerable in the Family Courts” was delivered by Sir James Munby and Charles Geekie QC who gave praise to the progress made by the criminal courts in this area and acknowledged that the family courts had a lot of catching up to do.

One of the most effecting presentations was given by Jenny Talbot OBE from the Prison Reform Trust, who was assisted by two co-presenters who both suffered from learning disabilities and had been through the criminal justice system as offenders.

There were some very interesting perspectives on how courts operate in other commonwealth legal systems, such as Australia, where Trevor Riley QC gave an overview of the challenges faced by Aboriginal people who come into contact with the legal system in the Northern Territory. There was also an insight into work being done in Scotland on this issue from Tim Barraclough, and an overview of research undertaken in New Zealand on communication difficulties with young people from Dr Linda Hand.

There were several exhibitors, providing services such as registered intermediaries. It was fascinating to talk to Triangle about the work they do for witnesses in criminal trials and family hearings. They showed me pictures of the special interview room that they use to speak to children, and the toys that they give them to play with to help with their anxiety. Intermediaries for Justice were also exhibiting.

In the afternoon I attended a session on Avoiding Miscarriages of Justice, where the focus was on research into how lawyers posed their questions to witnesses, and the results on their answers. Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft detailed her work on ‘lawyerease’ questions. Laura Oxburgh gave an overview on her research on police interviewing of mentally disordered subjects. She noted that some progress had been made in this area but further improvement was needed. The session ended with a presentation from Dr Andreas O’Shea entitled Accused in International Criminal Trials – Invulnerable? which looked at the relative infancy of the international criminal justice system.

Felicity Gerry QC highlighted the hardships faced by vulnerable witnesses in the civil system, particularly those who may have breached their Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, who will find themselves in this system where advocates, judges and court staff may be less familiar in dealing with defendants who are young and/or have learning difficulties. She described the toolkit available from The Advocates Gateway which has a range of materials to help in these circumstances.

Chair of the Advocates Gateway Management Committee, Professor Penny Cooper, echoed the theme of changes to the traditional adversarial method of advocacy. Her view is that there should be a ‘ground rules’ hearing to establish at the outset how a vulnerable witness will be treated.

HHJ Peter Rook QC delivered a presentation about Vulnerable Witness Training. This is a programme to train all advocates dealing with vulnerable witnesses, some 4,000 (and not just those in the criminal justice system), and really is quite remarkable. Junior lawyers should consider ensuring that they access this training as soon as possible as it will enable you to assist your firm or chambers and will mean that you start to embrace the recommended practices as part of your advocacy from day one.

This was a unique and engaging conference providing food for thought on a very important area. There was a wide range of different speakers touching on many areas of witnesses in the criminal and family legal systems, some of which were academic, some practical. The attendees too were made up of academics and doctors in addition to practitioners, so it had a different feel to other legal conferences I have attended in the past. I spoke to someone who was training the police in the language that they use when interviewing children, and a magistrate from Wales who told me about the changing face of the lay bench and the increased awareness that is developing there.

Anyone studying courses in these areas would have found this conference particularly useful. Having attended, I now have a much clearer understanding of how I would approach a vulnerable witness (whether or not they were my client), how to improve my own advocacy skills, and the services available to help me with this.

Adele Edwin-Lamerton is a member of the 2015 Executive Committee of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales.