Communication underpins access to justice: Let’s start talking about it.

Ms Mary Woodward1, Professor Pamela Snow2, Ms Rosalie Martin3, Ms Natalie Kippin4,5, Associate Professor Suze Leitao4,5, Dr Rochelle Watkins4,6, Dr Amy Finlay-Jones4,5, Ms Carmen Condon4, Ms Sharon Davis7, Dr Raewyn  Mutch4,5,8, Professor Carol  Bower4, Ms Stella Martin9, Dr Nathaniel Swain10, Ms Sally Kedge11
1Speech Pathology Australia , -, Australia, 2La Trobe University, -, Australia, 3Chatter Matters Tasmania, -, Australia, 4Telethon Kids Institute, -, Australia, 5Curtin University, -, Australia, 6University of Western Australia, -, Australia, 7Aboriginal Education, Catholic Education of Western Australia, -, Australia, 8Perth Children’s Hospital, -, Australia, 9Queensland Youth Justice, -, Australia, 10Parkville College, -, Australia, 11Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ , -, New Zealand

Presentation 1: Behind the Behaviour: Considering the Impact of Unmet Communication Needs in the Justice System

Pamela Snow and Mary Woodward

The first step in addressing needs is to recognise them. This presentation will provide an overview of what is known about the expressive (spoken) and receptive (comprehension) communication skills of young people in the justice system. Consideration will be given to how a young person’s behaviour may be masking underlying communication difficulties, and how these unidentified difficulties may have contributed to their pathway into the justice system, via the now well-established school-to-prison pipeline. The presenters will also discuss the impact that these difficulties are likely to have on a young person’s participation in justice processes such as police interviews, court appearances, and restorative justice conferencing, as well as their engagement in verbally-mediated treatment programs and literacy interventions.

Presentation 2: Communication privilege: could your communication be compromising your intentions?

Rosalie Martin

George Bernard Shaw, playwright and polemicist, said of communication “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”

If the intended meaning in a message has not been received, that meaning has in effect not been sent at all. In deeply confounding fashion, entirely different meaning may have inadvertently been received. Mr Shaw’s illusion presents daily challenges for justice.

Low levels of spoken and written communication skills are over-represented amongst youth in the criminal justice system. This results in failure to fully comprehend legal process, rights and choice. It restricts expression of personal needs and perspectives. It negatively impacts access to the most basic human needs including maintenance of significant relationships and education.

Paradoxically, very high levels of communication skill are needed to efficiently navigate the justice system and its legal processes. Justice professionals draw upon high-levels of personal spoken and written language skills to first enter, and then work, in this system. Familiarity and fluency with these skills can contribute to an ‘unconscious competence’ in language that can unwittingly open the Shaw illusion to the detriment of justice.

Communication is a two-way process. Its success lies in its intentional adaptation to the needs of the other.

This paper will give attendees powerful experiential insights into their unconscious communication privilege. It will provide opportunity to reflect on how such privilege may compromise justice. Arising insights will support changed communication practice toward ensuring dignified and equitable access to communication for all participants in legal process.

Presentation 3: Communication, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Youth Justice: Findings from the Banksia Hill Detention Centre project in Western Australia

Natalie R Kippin, Suze Leitao, Rochelle Watkins, Amy Finlay-Jones, Carmen Condon, Sharon Davis, Raewyn C Mutch, Carol Bower.

Background/Introduction: Studies confirm high prevalence of language disorder among justice-involved youth, however little is known about the impact of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) on communication skills of this population. There are important implications for communication problems associated with FASD, as successful navigation of legal and rehabilitation processes in youth justice demands effective two-way communication. Examining the communication skills among justice-involved youth with a diagnosis of FASD represents an opportunity to understand language strengths and difficulties among a population where a high prevalence of FASD has been documented.

Methods: Approximately 100 young people sentenced to detention in Western Australia participated in a language assessment as part of the Telethon Kids Institute Banksia Hill Detention Centre Project which examined the prevalence of FASD in youth justice (NHMRC Targeted Call for Research in FASD in the Indigenous populations, #1072072). Language outcomes were assessed using standardised and non-standardised methods and analysed according to the major language groups present in the sample: speakers of: Standard Australian English (SAE), Aboriginal English (AE) and English as an additional language (EAL).

Results/Relevance: The communication profiles of justice-involved youth will be discussed. This will include language strengths identified among the sample, and language characteristics of those who received a diagnosis of FASD. Implications for the young people and the youth justice system will be explored.

Presentation 4: What exactly do speech pathologists do in Youth Justice?: A practical overview

Ms Stella Martin and Dr Nathaniel Swain

Significant research indicates the high level of (usually undiagnosed) language and communication disorders in young people in contact with youth justice. Emerging Australian research is also showing the benefits of speech-language pathology (SLP) interventions for improving communication outcomes.

Like many jurisdictions in the UK, young people in the Queensland and Victorian youth justice systems can now have direct access to speech-language pathologists. This is an important development for both SLP practice, and broader governmental agendas seeking to implement evidence-based reforms that reduce offending and reoffending.

This presentation will showcase key future directions and goals of speech-language pathologists in Youth Justice settings, including:

  • Providing communication-accessible information for young people within Youth Justice settings. Many young people with speech, language and communication difficulties may not understand the abstract legal language and procedures that occur in youth justice, or the roles of the many stakeholders in these processes.
  • Incorporating speech-language pathologists in Youth Justice’s clinical governance;
  • Raising the awareness of the differences between Australian Aboriginal English, Torres Strait Islander languages/dialects and Standard Australian English. This is important due to the high number of young people in the youth justice system who have an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, where English may be their second, third, or even fourth language;
  • Integrating SLP perspectives with educational, health, and youth justice priorities;

Collaborating with teachers, health professionals, and other staff to build connected and coordinated services for young people in custody, that allow for smoother transitions back into the community.

Presentation 5: Transforming the communication involved in justice processes in New Zealand

Sally Kedge

“Half the time I have no clue as to what’s being said but I’ll just agree with it just to get out of there because I’m embarrassed about situations…”

Significant communication issues are faced by many involved with the courts. The implications of ‘just agreeing’ can be grave. People need to fully participate in the talk-based interactions integral to justice and rehabilitation processes e.g. Court processes, Family Group Conferences, counselling.

This presentation will outline some key recent developments underway to address the communication issues faced by many involved with legal processes in New Zealand:

1) Court-appointed Communication Assistants (similar to Intermediaries in some jurisdictions) are now sometimes appointed to assist the Courts to communicate effectively with vulnerable complainants, witnesses and defendants in Crossover (combined Family Court and Youth Courts), Youth, District and High Courts.

2) Oranga Tamariki/Talking Trouble Youth Justice Communication Projects, developed by our team to create accessible communication environments. Our speech-language therapists (SLTS) work in partnership with youth justice (YJ) professionals to enable young people and their families to understand and participate in YJ processes more successfully. These projects have progressed from pilot stage to projects underway in 8 sites around NZ, with more planned.

3) SLT involvement in the development of new justice initiatives, e.g. Specialist Remand Care for young people. In this project, staff are equipped to recognise and address communication needs, and develop appropriate resources and strategies to help young people have a say, understand and fully participate in interventions designed to help them.


Professor Pamela Snow is a speech pathologist and a registered psychologist and is Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School, at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University. She has conducted extensive research over the last two decades on vulnerable young people, particularly those in the youth justice system, out-of-home care and flexible/alternative education settings. Her findings show alarmingly high rates (around 50%) of unidentified language disorder in youth offenders, and she has published extensively about the implications of these difficulties for early educational practices, youth justice policy and practice, restorative conferencing, and the need for speech pathology services.

Mary Woodward is a speech pathologist with extensive experience in the forensic and psychiatric systems. She has worked in secure psychiatric hospitals, as a Registered Intermediary for the Ministry of Justice, and has been involved in youth justice in both a research and training capacity.  She is currently employed as the Senior Speech Pathologist at the Concord Centre for Mental Health in Sydney, the National Advisor, Justice and Mental Health, for Speech Pathology Australia and has a private practice, Speak Your Mind Services, providing speech pathology assessment, intervention and training within the justice and mental health systems.

Rosalie Martin is a criminologist, facilitator of reflective dialogue, and clinical speech pathologist of 34 years. In 2013 Rosalie founded a charity, Chatter Matters Tasmania, to bring literacy and parent-child attachment programs to Tasmania’s Risdon Prison. She was awarded 2017 Tasmanian Australian of the Year for the work she began at the prison. Rosalie is grateful for the platform this recognition has given to promote the value of kind communication in evidence-based service delivery. She is ever-grateful to family, friends and colleagues – for nothing is ever accomplished alone.

Natalie Kippin is a Certified Practising Speech-Language Pathologist, working in adolescent language, literacy and health. She was the lead speech-language pathologist on the Banksia Hill Detention Centre project, a world-first study which examined the prevalence of FASD among youth sentenced to detention. Natalie is currently completing a PhD titled, ‘Communication, FASD and Youth Justice’, for which she is also drawing on her qualifications and experiences in health promotion and as a Youth Custodial Officer.

Stella Martin was the first speech and language pathologist employed by a youth justice department in Australia. In 2017, she commenced the development and implementation of the Speech and Language Pathology Program in Queensland’s Youth Justice. She currently provides leadership in the delivery of speech and language pathology services to young people in youth detention and youth justice service centres who have complex speech, language and communication support needs.

Dr Nathaniel Swain undertook his PhD research working with teachers and students from Parkville College, the specialist Victorian Government School that provides education to students who are, or have been detained in custody. His doctoral research evaluated speech-language pathology intervention programs to support young people with developmental language disorder. Nathaniel now works as a Speech-Language Pathologist at the School, providing assessment, intervention, and other support services.

Sally Kedge runs Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ (TTANZ), a team of SLTs passionate about making communication easier for children, young people and adults involved with care and protection, justice, behaviour and mental health services in New Zealand. Sally has been appointed as a Communication Assistant for complainants and defendants in High, District and Youth Court, and in related settings such as Family Group Conferences and Restorative Justice processes. She provides speech-language therapy and professional development for others, and delivers innovative projects to equip professionals with knowledge, skills and resources so people can have their say, understand and effectively participate.


Recent Comments
    Recent Comments