‘You can’t be certain that you think that it wasn’t possible that you filled in the first side of the form?’
If you struggled for a moment with that question, imagine how it must have felt for a defendant with learning difficulties who was asked it by an advocate in open court.
Lawyer and academic Joyce Plotnikoff listed this example at an event to launch the Advocate’s Gateway – guidelines and toolkits created to help advocates ensure their questioning is suitable for vulnerable witnesses and defendants.
Here are two more:
‘Who would you say wears the trousers in your house?’ Asked of a witness with autism spectrum disorder, who interprets language literally.
‘It wasn’t you, was it?’ Asked of a six-year-old witness. (The lawyer complained they weren’t allowed to ask the ‘simplest question’.)
Speaking at the launch, the attorney general Dominic Grieve QC cited Judicial College guidance underpinning the importance of clear and appropriate communication.
The guidance says: ‘Effective communication is the bedrock of the legal process: [unless] all parties understand… the meaning of questions asked and answers given during the course of the proceedings… the process of law is at best seriously impeded. At worst, justice may be denied.’
As Grieve pointed out, the sexual offending against children by Jimmy Savile has focused attention on the way the criminal justice system treats young and vulnerable complainants.
Much has changed from the days when children were not deemed to be reliable witnesses.
The Advocate’s Gateway, a collaboration across the legal professions, judiciary, charities and government, demonstrates the progress that has been made.
At a time when criminal lawyers face changes that threaten their continued existence, this initiative is a fine example of the legal profession getting on with the job and doing what it does best – ensuring justice is done and that all who find themselves before the courts are treated fairly.
Along with 11 current toolkits that cover young witnesses and those with particular difficulties, more are planned to deal with mental illness, deafness, voice disorders, communication aids and the use of remote live links.
The harrowing remark of a young abuse victim, cited by Grieve - ‘going to court was worse than the abuse’ - demonstrates the challenge of the justice system, but the gateway is certainly a huge step in the right direction.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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