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Understanding the many faces of abuse in the Justice System

City event aimed to turn theory into practice in partnership with the wide range of attendees present


Intermediaries, researchers and members of the judiciary came to City, University of London at the start of May for a conference about understanding the many faces of abuse to enable effective participation in the justice system.

Jointly hosted by City and Intermediaries for Justice, the professional association for Intermediaries, the event aimed to turn theory into practice in partnership with the wide range of attendees present. This included exploring and understanding what lies beneath the initial disclosure of abuse; considering evidence-based approaches to facilitate communication within the justice system; and also reflecting on the effects of the justice system on all participants, including professionals.

As a result, talks covered a wide range of issues, including abuse in the criminal justice system, the roots of violence and also preventing child sexual abuse, with a view to facilitating professional collaboration and enabling children and vulnerable witnesses and defendants to give best evidence.

Presenting some new research at the conference, Professor Lucy Henry from the Division of Language & Communication Science at City, spoke about a study which looked at whether intermediaries – communication specialists who facilitate vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence - can help children give better evidence.

Authored by Professor Henry, Dr Laura Crane (City, University of London) and Dr Rachel Wilcock (University of Winchester), the study is the first to demonstrate empirically the positive impact of Registered Intermediaries on recall levels in typically developing child witnesses. It found that the presence of intermediaries produces highly significant increases in correct recall without compromising the children’s accuracy.

Taking 199 typically developing children, the researchers replicated a criminal case, simulating an initial crime and then following it up with an initial short interview to reflect a police first response, followed by either a ‘Best Practice’ police interview or one of three interview interventions a week later.

These three interview interventions were in the form of ‘Verbal Labels’ (four additional verbal prompts given), ‘Sketch Reinstatement of Context’ (witnesses draw a detailed sketch to help them remember the event) and ‘Registered Intermediary’ interviews (communication specialists facilitate children giving their evidence). Presence of an intermediary during the investigative interview significantly improved witness recall performance in typical children aged between 6 and 11 years.

The researchers also looked at how the presence of intermediaries affected identification of perpetrators in line-ups. They found that children receiving assistance from an intermediary were more accurate (average 92%) in identifying the perpetrator than children in the Best-Practice interview (average 52%).

Finally, in terms of mock cross-examination with a barrister, a high percentage of children (94%) ceded at least once to barrister challenges about their ‘evidence’, but when an intermediary was present, they were much less likely to cede to the barrister challenges than children in the ‘Best-Practice’ condition. As a result, there is strong evidence that intermediaries help children to give best evidence.

Speaking about the conference and the research findings, Professor Henry said:

“Our new findings strengthen the case for using intermediaries for younger children in the justice system, as we’ve shown that their presence can not only help with accurate recall in interview settings, but also when it comes to identification of perpetrators in line-ups and also giving the best evidence possible when being cross-examined. The conference itself was a great success, and I hope attendees will take away some of the new theory discussed and implement it in practice.”

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