The Advocate's Gateway International Conference: Addressing vulnerability in justice systems

9 July 2015

Michael Jones YBC

                      Michael Jones, 15 Winckley Square Chambers, Preston

The Advocacy Training Council held the Advocate's Gateway International Conference at the Law Society on 20 June 2015, the aim of the conference being to look at addressing vulnerability within our justice system. The conference proved to be highly successful, with speakers coming from a broad range of professions including the law, psychology, academia and the world of registered intermediaries.

In addition to looking at how vulnerable witnesses are dealt with in the English legal system, the conference's international speakers gave attendees an opportunity to learn how the issue of vulnerable witnesses giving evidence is handled in other common law jurisdictions, in particular New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland and perhaps most notably Australia. The use of a designated  Child Witness Service in Victoria, Australia is an innovation from which the English and Welsh legal system would surely benefit. As in so many other areas of the law in practice, we as legal professionals have much that can be learned from our foreign counterparts. 

Any practitioner attending the conference will have recognised that the way in which vulnerable witnesses are handled within our Courts is in urgent need of improvement and reform. Although much can be done to improve the situation in the criminal courts, it is in the family system that there is a more pressing need for fundamental reform. For example, the use of intermediaries within the criminal courts was certainly something that any family practitioner in attendance would have recognised as being a potentially highly valuable resource for the family courts, though one which is very little used. 

Hearing from intermediaries, psychologists, experienced Judges and legal practitioners on the topic of children giving evidence, it rapidly became clear that many of those attending the conference were not as knowledgeable or as skilled in witness handling as we had believed ourselves to be. 

Much was said about the way forward and the reforms required across the legal system as a whole, with the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, giving a particularly frank and insightful account of the deficits within the family jurisdiction.

The conference underlined the importance of the Advocacy Training Council as an educational body; reforms in this area are being put into place by the judiciary and by practitioners themselves and there is an increasing level of public scrutiny in this area. There is a clear need for increased professional education in the handling of vulnerable witnesses, and the Advocacy Training Council is already playing a central role in this respect by supporting the work of the Rook Group and publishing theAdvocate's Gateway Toolkits.

It is up to us as practitioners to ensure that the standard of advocacy and our understanding and ability to handle vulnerable witnesses in the court arena is of the highest level possible and that standards are maintained. It will be interesting to see how far things have moved on at next year's conference. For anybody who did not attend this year, next year's event is a must.  

Michael Jones
15 Winckley Square Chambers, Preston

Michael is a family practitioner based at 15 Winckley Square Chambers in Preston, Lancashire. He specialises in Public law Children Act cases, with a particular interest in those with an international element. He also undertakes work in the Court of Protection. 

An in-depth article by Michael Jones covering the Advocate's Gateway International Conference will be published in the September edition of Counsel Magazine.