Reported communication challenges for adult witnesses with intellectual disabilities giving evidence in court

AuthorJoanne Morrison,Jill Bradshaw,Glynis Murphy
Published date01 October 2021
Date01 October 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Reported communication
challenges for adult witnesses
with intellectual disabilities giving
evidence in court
Joanne Morrison
Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, UK
Jill Bradshaw
Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, UK
Glynis Murphy
Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, UK
Communication plays a key role in a witnesss ability to give evidence and participate in the court
process. Adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) can be negatively impacted by communication dif-
culties such as: limitations in recall abilities; suggestibility to leading questions; difcult question
styles used by advocates; and unfamiliar language used within the court setting. Most research car-
ried out on communication challenges for adults with ID, when giving evidence, has involved par-
ticipants in psychology-based experimental methodology. In this study 19 court reports assessing
actual witnesses (complainants and defendants) with ID, written by Registered Intermediaries in
Northern Ireland, were analysed. A wide range of communication difculties were identied for
the adult witnesses. Difculties resulting from communication used by their communication part-
ner (typically the advocate in a court setting) were also described. A rich model of the challenges
for both partners, in giving evidence and in cross-examination, is presented, extending previous
research. This study highlights the need for research within UK courts to assess: how witnesses
with ID are being questioned; the effectiveness of changes made to the court process to enhance
communication; the impact of the court process and environment on communication and alter-
native question styles for advocates to use.
communication, court, intellectual/learning disability, registered intermediary, vulnerable
defendant, vulnerable witness
Corresponding author:
Joanne Morrison, Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Cornwallis North East, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NZ, UK.
Original Research Article
The International Journal of
Evidence & Proof
2021, Vol. 25(4) 243263
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/13657127211031040
Communication, ID and court
Giving evidence in court can undoubtedly be a challenging and stressful experience for any witness.
Communication plays a key role in the giving of evidence and in cross-examination. The witness needs
to be able to give verbal information explaining their version of events, to fully understand and respond
to questions, and to withstand the complexities of communication within cross-examination. Research sug-
gests that the current process of cross-examination within an adversarial system can negatively impact on
eyewitness testimony (Kebbell and Johnson, 2000; Valentine and Maras, 2011; Wheatcroft et al., 2004).
During a cross-examination exchange, verbal communication is usually between two people, an advo-
cate and a witness. This two-way form of communication is often referred to as interpersonal communi-
cation (Berger, 2014), which requires some form of mutual interaction between the persons involved
(Burleson, 2010; Grifths and Smith, 2017). The process of an effective communication exchange can
be complex and is impacted by the communication skills of each communication partner involved,
such as: cognitive (Cogher, 2010; Wyer and Gruenfeld, 1995); language (Chomsky, 2011); social
(Burleson, 2010); and pragmatic skills to understand the more subtle meanings conveyed in a message
(Abbeduto and Hesketh, 1997; Hronis et al., 2017). Bar training in the UK would suggest that advocates
are being trained to question witnesses in a style that can be easily understood and processed by the
witness. In a section under useful tips, guidance from City University Londons Bar Manual on
Advocacy is for advocates to avoid long, complicated sentences and tag questions. Rather, when cross-
examining, they are told to Formulate your questions so that they contain one fact at a time. Use short
questions. Do not recite facts at length and then ask the witness Is that right?Be clear and concise.
(McPeake, 2018: 173). Bar training in Northern Ireland also teaches advocates to use simple language,
a slow pace of questioning and emphasises the importance of listeners being able to decodethe infor-
mation given (IPLS Queens University, 2019).
Adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) can experience a vast range of communication difculties relating
to their ability to focus and attend during a communicative exchange as well as with their receptive (inputting
and processing information) and expressive language (Belva et al., 2012; Cogher, 2010; Hronis et al., 2017;
Kelly, 2000). In addition, they can face challenges with the social skills required for effective communication
exchanges and understanding the underlying meaning of language used (pragmatic skills) (Abbeduto and
Hesketh, 1997; Martin et al., 2017). Research on adults with ID within the UK criminal justice system is
limited, particularly within the court setting. This is perhaps because of an historical attitude that those
with ID give inaccurate testimonies and are therefore not viable witnesses (Bowden et al., 2014; Harris
and Grace, 1999). Research, however, has demonstrated that this is not true, rather people with ID are
able to give accurate evidence under certain conditions (Bettenay et al., 2015; Ericson et al., 1994;
Gudjonsson et al., 2000; Henry and Gudjonsson, 1999; Michel et al., 2000). However, the presence of an
IDcanresultinsignicant communication challenges for a witness when giving evidence in court that
can impact on their testimony (Bowles and Sharman, 2014; Gudjonsson and Joyce, 2011). A recent system-
atic review informs of ve key communication challenges for witnesses with ID:
1. More limited information is provided in free recall.
2. Witnesses may be suggestible to changing their mind in response to leading questions and poten-
tially to negative feedback from the questioner.
3. Statements, tag questions and questions requiring a yes/no answer are more likely to lead to
4. Witnesses can nd it difcult to understand court language.
5. Memory limitations, suggestibility and the likelihood of acquiescence are linked to lower IQ
(Morrison et al., 2019).
244 The International Journal of Evidence & Proof 25(4)

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