Tapes cut child stress at trials

June 9, 1995

A -month investigation into the effectiveness of videotaping children's evidence has found that the tapes are succeeding in reducing the stress faced by children in trials, but do not appear to be having any major impact on jury's decisions. There was no significant difference in the proportion of guilty verdicts for videotaped evidence as opposed to live examination.

The 1991 Criminal Justice Act permitted for the first time the admission of videotaped interviews with children, conducted by a police officer, or social worker, as a substitute for the child taking the stand in the court. Under this law witnesses under 17 years old in cases of sexual assaults, and under 14 in cases of physical violence, are allowed to give evidence on videotape.

Videotaping Children's Evidence: An evaluation was conducted by a team of Leicester University psychologists, led by professor of psychology Graham Davies. Questionnaires were sent to judges, barristers, police officers and social workers in February 1993 before most workers had practical experience of the Act and again in August 1994. During this time anxieties about inadequate training had decreased considerably.

The team examined 40 tapes and found that a clear account of events was given in three-quarters of the tapes. But some interviewers did leave out the period of free narrative, when the child is allowed greater freedom to talk, and rushed the child into the questioning phase.

In all, between October 1, 1992 and June 30, 1994, some 1,199 trials took place in England and Wales involving child witnesses, of which 640 were accompanied by applications to show videotaped evidence. Of these, 470 were granted. The cases involved were overwhelmingly sexual offences of which indecent assault was the most common charge. The typical witness was female and aged 12, though children as young as three gave evidence.

Professor Davies said that of the sample of childen questioned, most welcomed the opportunity of making the tape though a few would have preferred to give evidence in the trial. Concern still remains about the working of the Act.

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