Child Witnesses face more injustice in criminal courts
Children becoming distressed under examination, language barriers and excessive delays are some of the issues raised in a Law Foundation-funded report about child witnesses being launched today.
Child witnesses in the New Zealand criminal courts: a review of practice and implications for policy is being released by AUT’s Institute of Public Policy (IPP) as part of the two-day LexisNexis Child Law Conference 2010.
Research instigator and co-author Dr Emma Davies, IPP programme director social development, will present an overview of findings on child witnesses in the criminal justice system at the conference.
Dr Davies says the results are disturbing because children acting as witnesses are already vulnerable having likely been subject to trauma or abuse.
“This is about children who are victims, complainants and witnesses of horrendous crimes,” she says. “They are children telling adults in a court room what has happened to them.
“The report considers how to make the process fairer for children while ensuring the accused gets a fair trial.”
The independent research was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation with contributions from the Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Justice and the New Zealand Police.
IPP senior research officer and co-author Dr Kirsten Hanna will present the report’s findings at the conference along with fellow co-author Dr Emily Henderson.
Dr Hanna says testifying in court can be difficult even for adults, and for children can be traumatic.
“Ensuring children are able to testify effectively is critical to the quality of justice in New Zealand. Yet our research reveals significant concerns about how child witnesses are treated in the criminal justice system in our country.”
The research focuses on children up to 17 years of age who have given evidence as witnesses for the prosecution in criminal proceedings as complainants or witnesses. It uses data from 2008 and 2009 collected from Auckland, Manukau, Wellington and Christchurch District and High Courts.
Dr Hanna says the research shows that child witnesses faced long delays while awaiting trial as well as inappropriate questioning in the courtroom.
“On average, children waited 15 months for their cases to come to trial,” she says. “When you add the police investigation and sentencing, the wait stretches out to 20 months.
“That’s a long time in the life of a child, in some cases nearly a quarter of their life.”
She adds that the period awaiting trial can be stressful for children and their supporters, and long delays can impact on memory.
The report also examines the language used by lawyers and other adults when questioning children.
“Bread and butter terms used in the courtroom such as ‘allegation’ are not necessarily understood by children,” adds Dr Hanna.
Children’s Commissioner Dr John Angus says the research shows that New Zealand can do better in the way it treats child witnesses.
“We need to find ways of working that respect children and take account of their linguistic and communication competencies,” he says.
“Inconsistencies in practice from court to court should be addressed such as the variable use of current provisions including video recording. It is also of concern that the researchers conclude that children are still cross-examined in ways that are ‘forensically unsafe’.
“I strongly encourage the Minister of Justice and his colleagues to give consideration to this report and the recommendations it makes for improving children’s experiences in the judicial process.”
The research identifies successful alternative processes that could be adapted to New Zealand.
“Western Australia, Norway and England are all using progressive modes of testimony gathering,” says Dr Davies.
“We think there is most merit in a system that adds pre-recorded cross- and re-examination by a court-appointed specialist child examiner to our current forensic interviewing processes,” she says.
The researchers are hopeful the report will result in systematic monitoring of the status of child witnesses.
Law Foundation Executive Director, Lynda Hagen says “The New Zealand Law Foundation is the major sponsor of the Child Witnesses Project, and we are delighted to see the delivery of this report. The Law Foundation exists to fund research into challenging public policy issues like those covered in this report.”
Contact the Foundation to request a copy of the report – Ph 04 499 1037 or email email@example.com.