Going to court and police assistance - information for people with disabilities

Find out about your rights if you have to go to court as a witness, juror, victim, applicant, respondent or defendant or if you require assistance from the police as you may need extra support or facilities.

Going to court and accessibility

If you have to go to court as a witness, juror, victim, applicant, respondent or defendant you may need extra support or facilities. Courtrooms and places where civil or family proceedings are held should be accessible to people with disabilities.

Preparing to go to court

If you have to go to court, you will be sent the necessary details, including:

  • the date and time of the hearing
  • court opening hours and location
  • arrangements, facilities and support for people with disabilities
  • a telephone or textphone number for more information

You can help the court ensure that things run smoothly by telling them in advance if you have any requirements. You can take a friend, relative or carer to court.

Facilities at courts

Courts must provide a reasonable alternative for making services available to people with disabilities, where a physical feature makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult to make use of them. Types of facilities and 'reasonable adjustments' court buildings should put in place include:

  • disabled parking spaces near to the courthouse
  • hearing aid induction loops in courtrooms
  • information leaflets and oath cards available in large print
  • advice and information on court procedure
  • staff trained to assist disabled people when necessary

Contact the court for information about the services and facilities available. All courts have a 'customer service officer' who can answer any questions you may have. Most courts also have a ‘disability liaison officer’ who will be pleased to assist people with disabilities if necessary. If required, staff can organise a court visit in order to familiarise you with the court building. Details about how to contact the court will be on any correspondence you have been sent.

You can also look up court addresses, contact details, facilities and maps, and download local information leaflets on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Intermediaries in criminal trials

If you are acting as a witness in a criminal trial and need help to communicate your best evidence, you may be allowed to use a 'registered intermediary'. You can use the intermediary to help you give evidence in the police station and at court. Registered Intermediaries are people the court approves to explain to the witness the questions that the court, the defence and the prosecution teams ask, and to communicate the answers that the witness gives in response.

Intermediaries must not change the meaning of what they explain. Intermediaries do not act for the defence, the prosecution or the witness - they are neutral.

Being summoned to be a juror

Jury summons forms ask you if you will have any extra requirements. Additional information will then be sent to you once the customer service centre has processed the reply to your summons and this will tell you about the court facilities.

Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service

Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service carries out the administration and support for:

  • the Court of Appeal
  • the High Court
  • the Crown Court
  • the magistrates' courts
  • the county courts
  • the coroners court
  • the Enforcement of Judgments Office and
  • a range of Tribunals

It has the corporate aim of "serving the community through the administration of justice". You can find out more, including how it is structured, on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Going to court if you are blind or visually impaired

If you are blind or visually impaired, the court should provide information about the communication support and facilities that are available to you.

Facilities and services at courts

You should be able to visit the court before you formally need to attend court. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the surroundings and to ask the customer service officer any questions you may have.

To arrange a pre-court visit, contact the customer service officer at the court you are due to attend. You can find details about how to contact the court on any communication you have been sent or via the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Information in alternative formats

All information can be made available in a wide range of alternative formats - requests for these formats can be made to the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service.

Assistance and guide dogs

Guide dogs are allowed into the courtroom. Going to court, particularly as a jury member, can mean long days. If required, it should be possible for your dog to be looked after while you are in the courtroom.

If a court session is long and your dog needs a break, you may need to arrange this with the judge via courtroom staff. Someone may also be able to take your dog for a walk.

If you require any of these services, contact the customer services officer or any other member of the court staff and they will be able to discuss your requirements and make any necessary arrangements.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and going to court

In certain circumstances, the DDA allows public bodies to justify less favourable treatment to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the rights of disabled people and wider concerns.

For example, a decision not to call a blind person for jury service in a particular case where it is considered vital that the jury can consider a good deal of the evidence visually is likely to be justified.

Going to court if you are deaf or hearing impaired

If you are deaf or hearing impaired, the court should provide information about the communication support and facilities that are available to you. If you do not speak English as your first language, the court may be able to arrange an interpreter for your use in the courtroom.

Facilities at courts

Most courtrooms are fitted with induction loops. If you think this may help you, please tell the customer service officer or disability liaison officer at the court as soon as you know you will have to attend a hearing.

If you want, you may visit the courtroom before the case is heard to be certain the facility will help you. To arrange a pre-court visit, contact the customer service officer or disability liaison officer at the court you are due to attend.

If the start of your case is called over a tannoy system and you feel this may be a problem, let the person on the reception desk know this.

You can find details about how to contact the court on any correspondence you have been sent, or on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Using an interpreter

In criminal proceedings the provision and cost of interpreters for defendants is met by the Criminal Justice system

In civil or family proceedings and tribunal proceedings generally, when an action is privately funded, it is a matter for the party requiring the services of an interpreter to make the arrangements and meet the costs. However the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service will arrange and meet the cost of interpreters needed for certain types of hearings and in certain circumstances, for example:

  • in cases of alleged domestic violence
  • family cases involving children
  • cases proceeding under the Forced Marriage Act
  • when the judge or tribunal chairman directs that an interpreter be arranged by the court or tribunal

Because of the sensitivity of these types of proceedings, the Northern Ireland Court Service will arrange and pay for an interpreter if required. This is irrespective of whether solicitors are involved or public funding is available.

If you are attending court as, for example, a claimant or defendant in a civil or family matter, Northern Ireland Courts Service (NICtS) will pay reasonable costs for an interpreter to assist you at your hearing. It will only pay for interpreters booked through the court.

If you require the use of an interpreter, you should tell the court as soon as possible. The court will make arrangements for an interpreter to attend. The Court Service is not responsible for providing an interpreter for any preparation involved in the course of your case, for example, discussions with a solicitor.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service will, on direction of the Coroner, arrange and meet the cost of interpreters needed for witnesses at a coroner’s inquest.

Further information on the circumstances when an interpreter will be provided by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service can be found on the website

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service is not responsible for providing an interpreter for any preparation involved in the course of your case, for example, discussions with a solicitor.

Using a friend or relative as an interpreter

Unless your friend or relative has a recognised qualification in relaying information between deaf and hearing people, it may be better to use a qualified interpreter.

If you want a friend or relative to interpret for you at a hearing, you will need to ask the judge for permission. The judge must be satisfied that your friend or relative can exactly interpret what you are saying to the court and also interpret what is being said to you.

More information and advice

Your first point of contact should always be with the customer service officer at the court you are to attend. You can find details about how to contact the court on any correspondence you have been sent, or on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Going to court if you have a 'hidden' impairment

You may be worried about going to court and you may feel the stress might make a medical condition or impairment worse. You should tell the court if you have any concerns.

Hidden impairments

Hidden impairments include disabilities that may not be obvious to other people, for example:

  • a slight mobility impairment
  • diabetes
  • epilepsy
  • cancer
  • dyslexia

Things to think about

All courts have first aid officers who have been trained to assist people who become unwell while attending court. If you have any concerns, speak to the court's customer service officer, disability liaison officer or let the person on the reception desk know that you may need help.

You will be able to visit the court before you formally need to attend court. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the surroundings and to ask the customer service officer any questions you may have.

To arrange a pre-court visit, contact the customer service officer at the court you are due to attend. If your impairment or medical condition is likely to affect you during a hearing, tell a court official before the hearing begins. Examples of assistance to ask for include:

  • having questions read out to you so that a form can be completed
  • if you have impaired speech, having someone to speak for you
  • being accompanied at all times by someone who can help, for example with holding papers
  • being able to eat or drink at regular intervals during the hearing because you are diabetic
  • having regular breaks, for example to take medication

If any of the above situations apply to you, you must bring this to the attention of the court as soon as possible.

You can find details about how to contact the court on any correspondence you have been sent, or on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website.

Police and people with disabilities

If you get involved with the police - perhaps as a witness or victim of crime or you are detained, arrested and/or taken to a police station - you have the same rights as anyone else.

Being questioned or interviewed at a police station

People who are deaf, hearing impaired or who have speech difficulties

If you are deaf, have a hearing impairment or speech difficulties the police should arrange for an interpreter to be present. The police should not question you until the interpreter is present. This is unless a delay would mean an immediate risk of harm to someone or serious loss of, or damage to, property.

People who have a learning disability

The police should only interview someone who has a learning disability when a responsible person (sometimes referred to as an 'appropriate adult') is present. This person should not be employed by the police and should be experienced in dealing with people with learning disabilities. It could be a relative of the person who is interviewed or someone responsible for their care.

If you have a learning disability, the police should not interview you until a responsible person is present unless delay would result in a risk of harm to property or people.

Right to medical treatment

If you are detained, you are entitled to a medical examination by a Forensic Medical Officer. You may also be examined by a general practitioner (GP) that you choose, if they are available. You may have to pay for this, however. This will be formally recorded.

The police and mental health 

Removing someone to a 'place of safety'

Part of the Mental Health Order 1986 (Article 130) details removing a mentally ill person from a public place to a place of safety. It details police powers and the rights of someone in this position.

Police and removing someone to a 'place of safety'

There are occasions when the police may act if they think that someone is in need of immediate care and/or control. They have the power to remove someone to a 'place of safety' for their own protection, or the protection of others.

Removing someone to a place of safety

A code of practice was introduced to guide doctors, social services and other professionals in the application of the Mental Health (NI) Order 1986.

This is to ensure the fair, sympathetic and effective treatment of people with mental health problems. It covers all aspects of the legislation and provides advice for police officers and how to deal with mental health issues.

Part of the Mental Health (NI) Order relates to removing a mentally ill person from a public place to a place of safety. It details police powers and the rights of someone in this position.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) operational procedure and guidance recommends that each police area should agree a policy with health and social services locally for putting the Order into practice. For example, police officers should know who to contact at both the local hospital and social services department.

Place of safety

A place of safety could be a hospital or a police station. Taking someone to a place of safety will allow that person to be assessed by a doctor and interviewed by an 'approved social worker'.

The maximum time someone can be detained is 48 hours (two days). By then, any necessary arrangements for the person's treatment and care should have been made.

Rights of the person detained

If the police remove someone under the Mental Health Order to a police station, the person being removed is entitled to:

  • have another person, of their choice, informed of their whereabouts
  • access to legal advice
  • the support of an appropriate adult
  • medical treatment from an appropriate healthcare professional if required

An 'appropriate adult' should not be employed by the police and should be experienced in dealing with people with mental health problems. It could be a relative of the person or someone responsible for their care.

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