Government plans child witness rule changes following Law Foundation-backed studies


RESEARCH TEAM LEADER: DR KIRSTEN HANNA, INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC POLICY, AUT UNIVERSITY

Law Foundation-funded studies have helped prompt the Government to propose major changes making it easier for children to testify in court.

A Cabinet paper released before the 2011 Election proposes a raft of reforms, including a legislative presumption in favour of pre-recording young children’s entire evidence (including cross and re-examination) before trial to reduce delays.

It also proposes that specialist intermediaries be used to improve the questioning of child complainants aged under 18. The detail of the intermediary model would be developed by the Ministry of Justice in consultation with experts.

Justice Minister Simon Power said the package was shaped in part by AUT University work on child witnesses. The AUT team’s most recent study, completed in September 2011, involved role-playing court hearings involving child witnesses to test intermediary models.

Study leaders Dr Emma Davies, of Rowe Davies Research, and Dr Kirsten Hanna, of AUT’s Institute of Public Policy, said the team was thrilled that the Government had acted so quickly on their recommendations.

“Child witnesses are especially vulnerable to long delays in processing cases and poor questioning practices,” Dr Davies said.

“The proposed reforms build on best overseas practice. They will help ensure the court process better accommodates child witnesses and enhances children’s ability to provide best evidence”

The latest AUT study followed an earlier major report, released in April 2010, on how children might participate more effectively in the criminal courts, including providing best possible evidence.

Dr Hanna said the first report generated considerable media and official interest, prompting the Ministry of Justice to draft best practice guidelines for child witnesses. Many of that report’s recommendations were included in a Ministry of Justice Issues Paper that formed the basis of consultation on alternative pre-trial and trial processes for children.

At the Law Foundation’s Annual Awards Dinner in 2010, Justice Minister Simon Power noted the contribution of AUT’s “valuable report” in preparing the new guidelines.

In 1989 New Zealand became the first common-law country to introduce a comprehensive package making it easier for children to testify in criminal proceedings. These included allowing children to testify in different ways, such as using video-recorded forensic interviews as the child’s evidence-in-chief, testifying via closed-circuit television, or being screened from the accused.

But further studies in the 1990s suggested that children still faced significant difficulties in court.

“The purpose of the Child Witnesses study was to see how far we had come in addressing the concerns raised in the 1990s,” Dr Hanna said.

“This 2½ year multidisciplinary study identified many shortcomings in the treatment of child witnesses, in particular the long delays in processing cases involving children, the nature of cross-examination, and varied access to alternative modes of giving evidence – CCTV in particular.”

Child Witnesses Report

The Law Foundation provided a grant of $165,726 in 2007 to fund this project.


Questioning Child Witnesses Report

The Law Foundation provided a grant of $20,000 in 2011 to fund this additional research.  The JR McKenzie Trust was a co-funder.

Dr Emma Davies

Dr Kirsten Hanna

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