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Pushing the boundaries to include the most vulnerable in the justice system

Vulnerability and Justice conference at City aimed to turn theory into practice in partnership with a wide range of attendees

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

Registered Intermediaries, police officers, members of the justice system, health professionals, researchers and students came to City, University of London at the start of May for a conference about vulnerability in the justice system.

The event was jointly hosted by City and Intermediaries for Justice, a charity with the objective of raising professional and public awareness of issues involved in fair access to justice for all.

The event featured several high profile speakers, including Baroness Helen Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, Jodie Blackstock from Justice, and Matthew Gould from the Ministry of Justice; as well as highly illustrative personal accounts from Bukola Bakinson, Nigel O’Mara and Sheldon Thomas.

The Victims’ Commissioner’s Report highlighted the widespread lack of knowledge regarding the experiences of victims as they go through the criminal justice system. This lack of understanding also extends to the impact on vulnerable witnesses of appearing in court. The report added that members of the judiciary were often not aware of Registered Intermediaries (RIs) and the work that they do behind the scenes, and further that there is currently a national shortage of RIs.

Other talks discussed issues as diverse as supporting vulnerable suspects to obtain a fair trial, how to support effective communication in the justice system, and the role of Registered Intermediaries in various court settings. Delegates were also introduced to UK Court Dogs, a stress reduction scheme that is being considered nationwide.

Presenting an overview of research on vulnerable witnesses at the conference, Professor Lucy Henry from the Division of Language & Communication Science at City, also described current research with colleagues Dr Laura Crane (UCL Institute of Education) and Dr Rachel Wilcock (University of Winchester).

Professor Henry outlined experimental approaches to studying witness abilities in children. These involve children taking part in an event or watching a video in which a ‘crime’ takes place. After a period of delay, this is followed up with an initial short interview to reflect a police first response, and then another interview a week later using a more elaborate interview technique.

Expanding on her most recent research, Professor Henry spoke about studies in which it was found that the provision of an RI increased the volume of correct details recalled about a witnessed event, without compromising accuracy. This also extended to improved identification line-up performance. Further, RIs helped children to resist cross-examination challenges when questioned on a ‘defence statement’ by an experienced barrister.

In children with autism the presence of a RI did not make any difference to the volume of correct details recalled, but RIs may be able to help children with autism more broadly in ways which they could not asses in the study. This includes managing anxiety and also helping to overcome barriers to the child giving evidence.

Discussing other research on vulnerable witnesses, Professor Henry spoke about how children with autism can recall forensically useful information about witnessed events, but they often remember fewer details than typically developing (TD) children of the same age and IQ. However, the information they do report is often just as accurate and they are no more suggestible than their TD peers.

Professor Henry also emphasised that children with intellectual disabilities (ID) can recall forensically useful information about witnessed events, broadly in line with their mental age level, and that their free recall is often highly accurate. However, children with ID do seem vulnerable to repeated questions, changing their responses more often than TD children of a similar mental age.

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

“Our new findings strengthen the case for using Registered 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 findings to implement in practice.”

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