Cross examining child witnesses in court fails to get to the truth, reports a new study published today.
The findings by psychologists come after years of debate as to whether small children should be put through the often harrowing process of having their evidence challenged by barristers.
There have been repeated calls for a gentler system which allows youngsters to give evidence prior to a trial but these have been rebutted by those who insist it is the best way of getting to the truth.
However, the new research published in the British Journal of Legal and Criminological Psychology today suggests that adversarial challenging of very young children can be detrimental to the accuracy of their testimony.
The results showed that cross-examination negatively affected the children’s accurate reporting of neutral events, and in contrast to the legal assumption, did not promote truthful reporting of wrongdoing. Furthermore, older children were more likely to provide a truthful account of any transgression when asked direct questions rather than when challenged under cross-examination.
Researchers studied the effects of direct questioning as well as the more leading cross questioning on 120 children aged between six and eight.
“Our findings indicate that cross-examination does not help children provide truthful testimony and may even jeopardise older children’s testimonies. We know giving testimony can be very distressing for children and these results suggest that cross-examination may not be the best method for promoting truthful testimony in children aged five to eight,” said Kay Bussey, who co-authored the report from Macquarie University, Australia.
In 1989, the Pigot Committee proposed a scheme which would allow children to give evidence before a trial in England and Wales. Ten years later a provision to that effect was included in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, but it has not yet been brought into force.
However, the act did bring in special measures such as lawyers removing intimidating wigs and youngsters being allowed to give evidence behind a screen or in a recorded video with cross-examination by live link to the court. An intermediary may also be appointed to help them give evidence and explain questions.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Children are only required to give evidence when absolutely necessary in the interests of justice. In these cases we strive to ensure that everything is done to support child witnesses and make the criminal justice process less intimidating. This includes providing familiarisation visits, children giving evidence from a separate room by video-link and being supported by an intermediary to help them give their best evidence”.