Guidance on cross-examination improves accuracy of witness testimony

The study, by researchers at the Universities of Liverpool and Leeds, showed that the construction and phrasing of ‘lawyerese’ questions can inhibit processes in the brain that impact on how a witness responds under cross-examination. The use of complex questions, containing multiple parts, double-negatives and advanced vocabulary may affect the brain’s ability to filter and streamline information effectively.

Researchers showed more than 50 participants footage of a staged crime, as though they were eye-witnesses, and then subjected them to the kind of questioning techniques they might encounter in court. They found that participants, who had been given prior guidance on cross-examination techniques, were seemingly able to add to their understanding of the cross-examination process, so that when they encountered complex questions in court they were more able to respond appropriately and less likely to make errors.

Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft, from the University’s Centre for Investigative Psychology, said: “Witnesses who come to court to give evidence have ‘schematic’ structures of experience. These structures allow the brain to organise knowledge around themes or topics. They act to streamline information so that we can cope effectively with daily life. We believe that exposing witnesses to the techniques used in cross-examination before they enter court, engages these structures, allowing the witness to organise their knowledge of events so that information can be accessed more easily in response to complex questions.

“Witnesses who are were not given prior guidance, however, are likely to work much harder to answer cross-examination questions accurately and tend to become nervous and frustrated in court as a result. Familiarisation with questioning techniques ‘frees up’ capacity in the brain to process information, but if a witness is not given guidance, the frontal/executive systems in the brain are potentially forced to work harder, leaving less processing capacity to work on understanding and responding to questions properly.”

Dr Louise Ellison, senior lecturer in law at the University of Leeds, added: “People are going into the witness box with very little knowledge and preparation. The lay person has little idea of what to expect and this understandably impacts on their evidence. It puts witnesses at a disadvantage and barristers are able to exploit their inexperience. There is increasing evidence that the accuracy of evidence is undermined by these questioning techniques.”

The study was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Notes to editors:

1. The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £98 million annually.

2. The Centre for Investigative Psychology (CIP) conducts internationally recognised research on the psychological processes associated with the investigation of criminal activity and the impact of various psychological factors on witness evidence and court processes. As part of a major Russell Group university, the Centre supports the development of high quality research, education, and training. http://www.liv.ac.uk/psychology/cip/

3. The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University’s vision is to secure a place among the world’s top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk

4. Each year the Arts and Humanities Research Council provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. Only applications of the highest quality and excellence are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk

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