A study led by a Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic, thought to be the first of its kind, suggests that the way in which prosecutors and judges use expert evidence and judicial directions can help to dispel juror misconceptions and enhance juror perceptions of the credibility of a child witness in child sexual assault cases.
Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty, a researcher at the CSU Australian Graduate School of Policing
in Manly, and the School of Psychology
in Bathurst said, “Indirectly, these simple and available legal interventions may affect the conviction rate for child sex offences, which, in turn, may encourage the police and prosecutors to send more child sexual assault cases to trial.”
The study, Enhancing the Credibility of Complainants in Child Sexual Assault Trials: the Effect of Expert Evidence and Judicial Directions, investigated the knowledge and misconceptions of jury-eligible citizens about children’s reliability as witnesses and responses to child sexual assault, and examined the influence of expert evidence and judicial directions in challenging common misconceptions.
Professor Goodman-Delahunty said, “Child sexual assault remains one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute in Australia, despite law reform measures over the past two decades that have focused on minimising the stress associated with a child’s appearance as a witness in order to enhance the child’s ability to give the best possible evidence.
“Little research has been conducted in Australia on procedural innovations that could counter juror misconceptions about children’s evidence and children’s reactions to sexual abuse.”
Other recent research showed that the perennially low conviction rate obtained in adult sexual assault trials in Australia is largely due to misconceptions held by jurors about adult sexual assault and the influence of these misconceptions on perceptions of the complainant’s credibility. The current study examined the efficacy of two innovative reforms to address deficiencies in jurors’ knowledge about child sexual assault, namely expert testimony about child sexual abuse and child behaviour, and judicial directions containing similar specialised information.
“These are encouraging results from a pilot study (130 participants) to investigate changes in legal procedures. The mock jurors’ misconceptions about child sexual abuse were reduced by exposure to specialised information about child sexual assault in the form of a judicial direction or expert evidence,” Professor Goodman-Delahunty said.
“At this stage it would be premature to extend the results to Australian jurors. Future studies should test the reliability and validity of the child sexual assault Misconceptions Questionnaire. Whether the credibility determinations so central in child sex abuse cases can be reliably modified by the proposed interventions needs to be tested using more realistic, externally valid case materials, such as a video-trial, in which mock jurors have an opportunity to observe the demeanour of a child, because the mode of presentation of child-witness testimony may be crucial in child sex abuse cases.”