Strange language - child victims under cross examination

Criminology Research Council grant ; (29/86)

This project sought to identify the extent to which children who testify in court are linguistically disadvantaged. The researchers interviewed child victim-witnesses and medical, legal, health and welfare professionals. In addition, they analysed trial transcripts and conducted a testing program to assess children's ability to hear and make sense of a range of questions posed in the course of cross-examination.

The language tactics deployed in cross examination capitalise well on the vulnerability of young victims and draw on wide-spread cultural misinformation about children's tendencies to tell lies and be unreliable.

The findings clearly demonstrate that some words are put together in such an obtuse and confusing way that they cannot even be heard as language, let alone responded to coherently. From these results the concept of 'Strange Language' is drawn and the nature of the strangeness is the subject of the greater part of the study. Thirteen features which contribute to strange and thus alienating language are described and explained. The credibility of child witnesses can be impeached by the confusing use of arcane legal jargon.

'Strange language' does not argue against children giving evidence or confronting the accused. Nor does it argue that they should be exempt from examination. It does however argue most strongly for the right of children to be allowed to display their story in a variety of modes and settings and to be provided with the language right of an interpreter if adults in court cannot train themselves to both speak clearly and listen carefully.