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Child witness testimony less accurate after cross-examination

14 February 2013 British Psychological Society (BPS)

This is one of the findings of research by Rhiannon Fogliati and Kay Bussey from Macquarie University, Australia that will be published online today, 18 February 2013, in the British Journal of Legal and Criminological Psychology. 

Rhiannon said: “In Australian child abuse cases children are still cross-examined by the defence even though many find this process distressing. There have been many recent child-focused changes to the legal process; however, cross-examination has remained largely unaltered, due to the assumption that it promotes truthful testimony.”

The current study tested this assumption by investigating the effects of cross-examination questions on children’s reports of neutral events and those where an adult was seen to do something wrong.

The study was conducted in two stages. First each of the 120 kindergarten children (61 aged six and 59 aged eight) participated in individual healthy eating lessons conducted by ‘Mrs Brown’, during which she did something wrong. The child witnessed Mrs Brown accidently rip an important poster and react by saying: “Oh no, oh no, I’ve ripped the special carrot poster, I hope I don’t get into trouble. Maybe nobody will notice.” The lesson then continued without any further mention of the wrongdoing.

The second stage involved interviewing the children in two separate interviews.

The first interview by ‘Mrs Jones’ included open ended questions such as ‘Tell me everything that happened during the healthy eating lesson’. This will followed by a single prompt, ‘Tell me more about what happened’. Once the child indicated that no further information could be provided, Mrs Jones began the direct examination. This interview consisted of 21 direct (yes/no) and specific questions (which pieces of fruit did you touch?).

The second interview was conducted by Mrs Smith and each child was randomly allocated to one of two interview conditions: the direct/direct condition or the direct/cross condition. In the direct/direct condition the child was asked a different set of direct-examination questions about the same events as in the first interview.

In the direct/cross condition questions were leading, ambiguous, complex and irrelevant, as they would be in court and aimed at persuading children to change their initial responses.

For example, a child who answered ‘Yes’ to a target question in the first direct examination was asked a set of questions designed to change his or her response from a ‘Yes’ to a ‘No’.

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 the adult’s wrongdoing. Rather, older children were less likely to provide a truthful disclosure of the transgression under cross-examination than direct-examination.

Kay said: “ 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 – eight”

Kay continued: “However, there are limitations to this study, such as the mild severity of the transgression used, and we would recommend that further research is necessary.”

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