University of Pretoria

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Persons with communication disabilities and the criminal justice system

posted on 2023-11-21, 07:07 authored by Tracy GibbsTracy Gibbs, Juan Bornman

Existing literature on questioning strategies recommended for use with both children and adults with communication disorder (CD) in criminal courts was integrated using a synthesis matrix. Questioning strategy guidelines were developed from the synthesised data. Specific attention was given to those principles that would accommodate individuals using AAC. Individual interviews were conducted with expert South African legal practitioners regarding their perceptions of the clinical utility of these questioning strategies. 

Thematic analysis of the transcribed interviews was used to establish common themes in the interviews. During the thematic analysis of the data, four overarching themes were identified as being important to the participants in the study, namely the person and their specific needs, preparation and support, court processes, and universally appropriate techniques. Within these themes, participants felt that no two witnesses with CD are the same and that questioning strategies need to be adjusted to suit each individual witness. Preparing the witness for their court experience is seen as vital for the witness to be able to testify effectively in court. This is particularly true in the South African adversarial system where the witness is likely to be cross-examined. In addition, participants noted that many of the accommodations recommended in the questioning strategy guidelines are already in regular use in the South African criminal courts. However, defendants with CD are not routinely offered the same accommodations as complainants with CD.

A consolidated set of questioning strategy guidelines with a strong evidence base has been developed. The results of this study foreground the challenges faced by individuals with CD when questioned in criminal courts, particularly during cross-examination. More training of legal practitioners from the beginning of their studies and through continuing professional development is needed to improve their understanding of and sensitivity to the challenges faced by individuals with CD. Training must include disability sensitivity and skills-based training to ensure that communication challenges are accommodated rather than exploited.


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