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Wednesday, September 29, 1999 Published at 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK


Lawyers 'undermine' disabled witnesses

Few abuse allegations by people with learning difficulties come to court

The kind of questions lawyers ask people with learning difficulties in court often undermine their evidence and allow their abusers to go free, say researchers.

Disability campaigners say people with learning difficulties are more likely to be victims of crime than the general public.

But attacks against them are rarely prosecuted because police do not realise they have a disability or they are not considered reliable witnesses.

This means their abusers often go unpunished which in turn makes them even more of a target.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham say that, even when cases are brought to court, it is often easy to undermine a witness because they are fed questions they find difficult to answer.

They studied the transcripts of cases which had come to court.

The researchers found that 51% of all questions asked by lawyers demanded either a yes or no answer.

Some 85% of questions asked in cross examination were of this type.

"People with learning difficulties often say yes to anything so they contradict themselves," said Dr Mark Kebbell, who presented the research to a British Psychological Society conference on Wednesday.

"This reduces their credibility."

Multiple questions

He added that another problem was lawyers who asked many questions in one question.

Studies showed members of the general public had difficulty answering these.

Often they would answer yes or no to one part of the question and ignore the other part, meaning their response could be misinterpreted.

Twelve per cent of questions lawyers asked people with learning difficulties involved negatives, for example, being asked if something 'was not the case'.

"Lawyers should not ask negative questions as people with learning difficulties do not understand them," said Dr Kebbell.

"It is better to ask them an open question like 'tell me what happened?'"

He believes many defence lawyers use these kinds of questions deliberately to undermine a witness and admits this may sometimes be justified, for example, if the initial interviews by police, social workers and carers relied on a lot of negative questions or ones requiring a yes/no answer.

"It is reasonable that they should seek to show that allegations may have been obtained by suggestion. People with learning difficulties can be very suggestible."

Taping interviews

He believes initial interviews should be taped and should use open questions so as not to lead the witness.

And he says judges should challenge the use of complicated or yes/no questions to people with learning difficulties in court.

There may even be an argument for an expert to point out to the jury that the witness may have trouble with certain types of question, he added.

Dr Kebbell thinks there is a good argument for using taped evidence in court for people with learning difficulties.

Currently, abused children are allowed to give taped evidence, but this does not apply to vulnerable adults.

"Cases take so long to get to court and people with learning difficulties often have poor memories which decay quickly. Their initial evidence to police or social workers could therefore be used as the main evidence in court," said Dr Kebbell.

The research is continuing and will compare abuse cases involving the general public with those involving people with learning difficulties to see if the latter are less likely to volunteer information or need more coaching or time to expand on points.

Mencap, the charity for people with learning difficulties, backed the findings and called for police and lawyers to be trained to deal with such cases.

Its research shows few barristers have any specialist training, but most are open to it.

A spokesman added that the government had recommended some measures, such as video link-ups so witnesses did not have to come to court, which might improve the situation.

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