What is a Communication Assistant / CA?

CAs are court-appointed specialists who advise and assist lawyers, police and judges with defendants, witnesses and civil litigants who have communication difficulties so that they can give “best evidence” and participate effectively in the justice system.

How do I get a Communication Assistant involved?

Engagement for a CA is made through a referral to Moretalk (see referral form link). Moretalk can then provide a quote for engagement for a Communication Assistant Assessment and report. Engagement can come directly through the Court for both vulnerable witnesses and defendants, which can often be the most seamless pathway. But funding can also be sought from the crown or legal aide.

How long does it take to get a CA engaged?

When you refer to us, we appreciate any information you can give us regarding pending callover’s and hearing / trial dates. Should we be unable to meet that schedule we will discuss this with you. There is currently a low number of CA’s available (nationwide) for the amount of referrals being made so expect some delays. We recommend to refer as early in the process as you can.

Who is eligible for Communication Assistance?

CAs are appointed under s 80 of the Evidence Act 2006, which entitles defendants in criminal proceedings and witnesses in civil or criminal proceedings to “communication assistance”, broadly defined in sec 4 of the same Act as "oral or written interpretation of a language, written assistance, technological assistance, and any other assistance that enables or facilitates communication" with a person with a communication impairment. The eligibility parameters in New Zealand continue to be broad. Do not be put off applying because the person has some communication ability. The aim of a CA is to enable people to participate fully and to give best evidence, not basic evidence.

How do I know if a CA is required?

Except in the most obvious cases, it can be difficult for a lawyer to decide if a person needs a CA. Communication impairments are often subtle and well-hidden. Even where Speech Language and communication need is obvious, experienced lawyers often underestimate the severity of its impact.

If it is suspected that the person may need a CA, it can be confirmed only by a CA assessment and report, which can then be used as the basis of the CA application. As outlined in the Benchmark Communication Assistance Guideline:

Always apply for a CA for:

  • Children 12 years and under;
  • Anyone for whom there are recent or historical concerns about:
    • Developmental delay/disorders, learning difficulties/disorder (including dyslexia), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Intellectual Disability (ID), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), mental health diagnosis, etc.;
    • Anxiety or stress affecting communication (e.g.: a person who usually has no issues but who has had incidents of deterioration/not being able to communicate when stressed);
    • A hearing impairment or someone who is Deaf, or;
  • Anyone with a recent psychiatrists’ or psychologists’ report, including a Fitness to Plead Report or a Mode of Evidence Report, indicating communication difficulties, low IQ, poor processing speed, high suggestibility or high stress.

When should I consider applying for a CA?

Disabilities can be difficult to identify if there is no prior diagnosis, obvious markers or history. If you feel someone is having difficulties communicating, consider a communication assessment to confirm whether a CA application is needed.

Possible signs of need include a person who:

  • Finds it hard to interact with you or to give you detailed responses to your questions;
  • Cannot maintain a coherent narrative, or forgets or contradicts their previous accounts;
  • Gives vague or non-specific responses;
  • Takes a long time to respond, is hesitant or frequently reformulates their sentences;
  • Does not appear to understand much of what you say;
  • Is unable to repeat your advice back to you in his or her own words;
  • Agrees with you constantly or is reluctant to correct you (nodding, repeatedly saying “all good”);
  • Says they do not remember or “dunno” a lot or repeatedly changes the subject;
  • Shows inappropriate or unusual emotional responses such as smiling or laughing inappropriately, inappropriate humour or inappropriate confidence or cockiness;
  • Is easily distracted or restless when listening;
  • Talks tangentially or is off the topic;
  • Talks too much or not enough. Sentences may be very short and lacking in complexity or might be rambling and difficult to follow.

What training to CA’s receive?

All Moretalk CA’s are currently experienced Communication Specialists who hold a degree in Speech Language Therapy and are registered members of the New Zealand Speech Language Therapy Association (NZSTA). At present training of CA’s is undertaken in a side by side mentoring process of joint cases through to independent supervised steps in the role. Michelle Bonetti is the lead in this training, having received specific Intermediary and Forensic questioning of children training in the UK. Moretalk (and other agencies) continue to work with the MOJ in development of an accredited CA short course training in New Zealand.

How many CA cases have Moretalk done?

Since the 2012 Hetherington Matter, Moretalk have managed over 80 CA referrals, Approximately 60% of these have been for vulnerable witnesses and %40 for vulnerable defendants. Michelle Bonetti has provided Communication Assistance to Police for assessment, planning and assistance at second specialist police interviews (at this stage Crown funded).

Do CA’s only work in the Court?

Communication Assistants can be beneficial for those with Speech Language and Communication needs in a huge amount of contexts. We can assist in ensuring that a vulnerable person understands what is being explained to them and be able to express themselves to the best of their abilities. We also work with others to educate them in understanding that person’s needs and following accommodations and strategies to facilitate complete communication. For Justice contexts this can be at police interview stage, FGC’s, mediation, but could also work in civil interactions such as wills, estates etc. With the current political environment of enquiries into past institutional abuse, there is a role for CA’s to assist in interviews of vulnerable adults. CA’s also hold invaluable skills in questioning of children should any agency be undertaking interviews or surveys.