Questioning Child Witnesses - Latest Research Report Released
The latest report on Questioning child witnesses from the Foundation-funded AUT study has just been released. A full copy of the report can be downloaded here. The research was undertaken by Dr Emma Davies, Dr Kirsten Hanna, Dr Emily Henderson and Dr Linda Hand. The JR McKenzie Trust was a co-funder of this research.
The purpose of the current study was to explore the potential benefits and risks of different intermediary models at trial by conducting mock examinations of a “child” wintess (role-played by an adult). Exploration of intermediaries was not undertaken on the basis that all children will be truthful. A thoughtfully constructed model might, by improving questioning, highlight false allegations more efficiently and effectively than now. The basis for this project was that regardless of whether a witness is thought to be truthful or not, the best approach to any child witness is one which does not increase the risks of contaminating his or her evidence.
The Law Foundation-funded study has helped prompt the Government to propose major changes making it easier for children to testify in court.
A just-released Cabinet paper 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.
In this latest report, the researchers say:
“In summary, there was broad consensus between project participants that children are often poorly cross-examined in New Zealand’s criminal courts and that intermediaries might improve the quality of children’s evidence. Most participants perceived the idea of an intermediary system as worthy of further careful exploration and, while cautioning against precipitous action, the authors also see promise in the idea. The topic-by-topic model was generally perceived to be more effective than the other two models considered; however, there is more than one viable model of operation. For example, intermediaries could conduct communications assessments of individual children and then monitor proceedings as in England/Wales; or they could assist counsel to prepare their questions in advance of trial and then monitor counsels’ questioning of the child at trial; or they could question the child directly under the directions of counsel and the presiding judge in something similar to the topic-by-topic model. Whichever model, a pre-trial assessment of the child’s communicative competencies would be an ideal component.”
“While we are far from having developed a fully workable model, the exercise helped to highlight some of the issues that would need to be carefully considered in developing an intermediary system, including:
Reflecting on the mock examinations and participants’ views, the authors propose the