News Item

June 2020

Research finds Specialist Sexual Violence Pilot Courts need to make significant changes to reduce distress of young witnesses

Research recently released by the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology investigated the Sexual Violence Pilot Courts in relation to child witnesses. The pilot courts, set up in December 2016, aimed to reduce the negative impact of court involvement on complainants and promote best evidence.

The research entitled “Young Witnesses in New Zealand’s Sexual Violence Pilot Courts”, sought to find out whether the pilot courts had made a difference, and in doing so aimed to contribute to innovation in court processes and the further development of the Sexual Violence Court Pilot.

It comprised two studies, both with a focus on young witnesses:

  • Interviews with young complainants and their caregivers about their experience in court
  • Analysis of transcripts of trials in the pilot courts and two District Courts with a focus on language used when questioning young complainants .

The first study was aimed at identifying sources of stress and support during court involvement. The findings indicated that the pilot has yet to have a significant impact on the distress of young witnesses. Changes likely to reduce this negative impact include: a multi-agency approach to provide support and information during the period awaiting trial, reducing pre-trial delay and improving the conduct of trials.

The second study involved a detailed analysis of transcripts of testimony of young witnesses from two pilot courts and two non-pilot courts. Analyses focused on the type of questions asked, complexity of language, the timing and duration of young witnesses’ evidence, provision of breaks, and judge intervention.

The average time between the young witness making the complaint and the trial was 13.2 months for pilot courts, and 16.3 months for non-pilot courts. The use of complex language, likely to be confusing to witnesses, was common. There were few differences in the use of complex language between pilot and non-pilot courts or between defence lawyers and prosecutors. Leading questions, generally regarded as contrary to children’s ability to give best evidence, were common, particularly from defence lawyers. Provision of breaks and judge intervention in inappropriate questioning were rare.

Overall there appears to have been little change in the experience of young people and their caregivers in their participation in the courts. Nor has there been significant change in the conduct of lawyers in questioning young witnesses.

The report concludes saying “Although the findings of this research suggest that more change is needed, the pilot provides fertile ground within which to sow the seeds of meaningful change. The actions needed have been clearly outlined by practitioners, researchers and the young people and families for whom they are needed. It’s now for the Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary to enact this change.

Report: Young Witnesses in New Zealand’s Sexual Violence Pilot Courts – PDF, 72 pages

The Law Foundation provided $90,500 towards the research supporting this project