Law: A new way of protecting the innocents: Paula Nicolson looks at the increasing use of video links to improve the quality of evidence given by child witnesses in the courtroom

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The Independent Online
BARRISTERS and solicitors need to be trained in the techniques of interviewing children, according to Professor Graham Davies of Leicester University. They should also take psychologists' findings seriously.

The belief that the vivid imagination of a child leads to unreliable testimony is widespread in cases where public sensibility is challenged. This is particularly apparent in accusations of sexual or psychological abuse, when the main prosecution evidence is the uncorroborated word of the child.

For the past 10 years Professor Davies has been an important figure among a group of British psychologists who are defining the conditions under which children are able to give good evidence.

They are also evaluating various legislative innovations to courtroom procedure such as the video link, through which children give evidence from outside the court without directly facing the accused.

A pioneering study in the early 1980s by the psychologist Dr Helen Dent demonstrated that children were capable of producing coherent and useful evidence when they simply recalled events. But when questioned, especially in the presence of the offender, they became mute or their testimonies were muddled. This set the agenda for Professor Davies' work: a programme of psychological experiments on children's testimonies and studies of the effects of courtroom procedures on children as witnesses.

Professor Davies believes that his research has the potential to overturn misunderstandings about children's evidence. 'All that is necessary now is that those involved, particularly judges and barristers, take psychologists' findings seriously,' he says. His research on children's feelings about their evidence, undertaken five years ago with Dr Rhona Flin, revealed that their biggest fear was the presence of the accused.

He also found that the alien nature of the courtroom, intimidating to many adults, is intensified for children. 'They don't understand much of the legal jargon,' Professor Davies says. 'For instance, most thought that 'sheriff' - the Scottish word for magistrate - was something to do with the wild west. The majority of lawyers who interview and cross-examine children too often assume children use words in the same way they do.'

Professor Davies found that 25 per cent of all cross-examinations of children aged seven and eight included 'age-inappropriate' language. He says: 'Skilful cross-examination should bring out the issues, and most barristers were failing to do this'.

Following publication of a questioning article on the experimental video link, Professor Davies was commissioned by the Home Office to evaluate the project. He found that the video link helped children in a number of significant ways. 'They were protected from the alienating courtroom, and from having to see the accused,' he says. 'What was unexpected was the benefit of relaxing the children and making them more forthcoming about the amount of information they were able to give.'

These findings have led to the Home Office extending the video link scheme to 36 courts. Their geographical spread means that there is now no reason why any child has to give evidence in open court.

Reports of this work have appeared in professional journals but, says Professor Davies, 'we still hear criticisms of the video link that are cited without reference to its advantages'. He believes barristers often express the fear that the video provides a distancing effect to those assessing the evidence. While this may be the case, it is outweighed by the quality and amount of evidence that children supply through such means, he says.

Another aspect of the legal system that harms children's evidence is the ten and a half months that elapse from the time someone is charged to the court appearance. '40 per cent of all cases involving children's testimonies are rescheduled, some at the very last minute. The build-up to the event is stressful, and then to be told on the day of the trial that they will have to go through this again at a later date is doubly traumatic,' he says.

Videotaped interviews were introduced to overcome this problem and Professor Davies, with Dr Claire Wilson, is involved in an evaluation study. 'There is concern that judges will not permit recorded interviews as evidence. Many of them seem cut off from the benefits of such innovations,' Professor Davies says.

If the police, social workers, solicitors, barristers and judges ignore psychological evidence on the implications of courtroom procedure, persist with poor interviewing techniques and remain insensitive to the effects of their treatment of the child, valid prosecutions of child abusers will fail, according to Professor Davies. Children, like the rest of us, are not exempt from the negative effects of stress on their memory and ability to present evidence, and the added pressure of attempting to understand the formalities of the adult world of the law may result in a failure to take cases to court.