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Working with Child and Vulnerable Witnesses in the Courtroom

These on-demand learning resources have been developed to assist Victorian judicial officers to work with children and witnesses with cognitive impairments in the courtroom when conducting Ground Rules Hearings and managing the questioning of these witnesses.

The resources offer approaches for working with an intermediary and when intermediaries are not present. They have been organised into topics that can be viewed consecutively or individually to build your knowledge and skills in this important area of practice.

Identifying Communication Issues with Vulnerable Witnesses

Language and communication skills are often taken for granted without a full understanding of their inherent complexity and sophistication. A range of social and environmental factors impact on a child’s language development and oral competence. The factors that make a person’s communication skills vulnerable are over-represented in children and adults who appear before the courts.

Watch Professor Pamela Snow, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, La Trobe University, discuss communication issues with vulnerable witnesses to learn about:

  • Fundamentals of language development
  • Factors that make communication skills vulnerable
  • How communication issues present in the courtroom.

A copy of Professor Snow’s slides can be accessed here.

Watch an expert judicial panel and Professor Snow discuss identifying communication issues with vulnerable witnesses, including universal precautions judicial officers can take to assist vulnerable witnesses, and formulating questions for witnesses.

Please refer to the Supporting Materials section below for additional resources on communication with vulnerable witnesses.

Ground Rules Hearings

Ground Rules Hearings are a pre-trial process in cases which involve a child witness or witness with a cognitive impairment. At such hearings, a judicial officer gives directions about issues such as the manner and content of cross-examination under Part 8.2A of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009.

Watch ‘How to conduct a Ground Rules Hearing’ to view best practice in how to conduct a Ground Rules Hearing with and without an intermediary, including directions regarding questioning. You can view the full video, or select individual chapters using the markers in the video below.

  • Chapter 1: Introduction by Chief Judge Peter Kidd
  • Chapter 2: Conducting a Ground Rules Hearing with an intermediary
  • Chapter 3: Conducting a Ground Rules Hearing without an intermediary
  • Chapter 4: Closing remarks by Chief Judge Peter Kidd

Please refer to the Supporting Materials section below for additional resources to assist with conducting Ground Rules Hearings.

Managing the Questioning of Vulnerable Witnesses - With an Intermediary

In proceedings where an intermediary has been appointed, the evidence of a child or vulnerable witness must be given in the presence of the intermediary in accordance with s 389K of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009. At these Special Hearings, judicial officers must manage the questioning of vulnerable witnesses.

Watch the first two chapters of this video to understand best practice in managing the questioning of vulnerable witnesses in hearings involving an intermediary. Alternatively, you can watch the full video.

  • Chapter 1: Opening remarks by Judge Meryl Sexton
  • Chapter 2: Managing the questioning of vulnerable witnesses with an intermediary 

Please refer to the Supporting Materials section for additional resources on working with an intermediary.

Managing the Questioning of Vulnerable Witnesses - Without an Intermediary

Contested hearings may not always involve the use of an intermediary.

Watch the third chapter of this video to understand how to manage the questioning of vulnerable witnesses in hearings where an intermediary is not present. Alternatively, you can watch the full video.

  • Chapter 3: Managing the questioning of vulnerable witnesses without an intermediary 
  • Chapter 4: Closing remarks by Judge Meryl Sexton 

Please refer to the Supporting Materials section below for additional resources on working without an intermediary.

Supporting Materials: Legislation, Court Guides and Key Resources

Legislation

The provisions governing Ground Rules Hearings and intermediaries are found in Part 8.2A of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009.

Multi-jurisdictional Court Guide and Uniform Evidence Manual

The Multi-jurisdictional Court Guide for the Intermediary Pilot Program provides practical information on working with intermediaries and conducting a Ground Rules Hearing, including directions. It is intended to be read in conjunction with the legislation.

The Uniform Evidence Manual Appendix A: Child Witnesses: Testing Competency and Questioning – A Practical Guide contains Overarching Principles for Questioning Children, contextual material that is common to all age groups, information about developmental milestones and sample scripts for different age categories.

Practice Directions and Court Resources

Practice Directions:

Magistrates’ Court of Victoria resources:

Case Notes

On the role of the trial judge and the obligations of counsel in relation to child witnesses:

Supporting Materials: Visual Aids, Fact Sheets and Articles

Intermediary Assessment Report and Visual Aids

This sample Intermediary Assessment Report, referred to in the Ground Rules Hearing video, provides an illustration of the type of important information that might be included about a witness’s communication needs.

The report references the following visual aids (also referred to in the Ground Rules Hearing video):

Fact Sheets on Communication

These communication fact sheets have been prepared by the Intermediaries Pilot Program, Department of Justice and Community Safety, Victoria in 2020 to explain common issues and provide strategies to assist in communication with vulnerable witnesses:

The following fact sheets from the Child Witness Service, Victoria, aim to help judicial officers and legal professionals communicate with child witnesses and obtain quality evidence from children of all ages and abilities:

Links

Articles