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Improving access to justice for vulnerable people

Background

Individuals who are vulnerable due to their age, physical, mental or intellectual disabilities face huge challenges when navigating the Criminal Justice System. In 1999, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act recognised this, allowing - amongst other changes - the introduction of intermediaries to assess the communication skills of vulnerable people and provide guidance to practitioners (such as police officers and social workers) on the best way to question them.

Dr Kimberley Collins, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Teesside University, has spent nine years exploring the role of intermediaries in the Criminal Justice System and gathering insights to enable vulnerable victims and witnesses to give the strongest possible evidence during proceedings.

The Research

Collins' extensive body of research has looked closely at the rapport building and communication assessment approaches used by child protection practitioners during police interviews, as well as the work of Registered Intermediaries in police interviews and courts.

The research provided one of the first models for building and establishing rapport during police interviews, finding a direct link between rapport and the amount of investigation-relevant information that is shared by vulnerable people, such as children. It also uncovered how the assessment approaches used by intermediaries allow them to understand the communications skills of children and then use this to assist the police and courts in gathering evidence from them.

Collins' research also considered whether the use of intermediaries affects the fairness of criminal proceedings. The findings showed that the presence of an intermediary had no impact upon jurors ratings of a defendant's believability or guilt, and their involvement, in fact, improved the quality of children’s communication and evidence.

The Impact

In demonstrating the importance of effectively assessing the communication skills of vulnerable witnesses and victims, alongside the key role of rapport-building in interviews, Collins' research has led to changes in the practice of people that work with vulnerable children within the Criminal Justice System.

Collins' recommendations have improved the practice of intermediaries, informing a series of toolkits and workshops which teach practitioners how to understand the communication needs of vulnerable people and use rapport to effectively facilitate their engagement. It has also improved the practice of police officers and social workers during interviews with children and young people, equipping them to build rapport, assess communication skills and gather more investigation-relevant information.

While Collins' recommendations have informed technical guidance and practice across the UK, the greatest impact of her research has been in increasing access to justice for vulnerable people – providing a framework to ensure everyone’s voice can be heard.


“[The toolkits] have improved our service provision as our intermediaries rely on them to support the successful questioning of vulnerable victims and defendants. In turn this leads to better communication from vulnerable people.”

National Lead for Family Services, Triangle

Centre for Applied Psychological Science

The Centre for Applied Psychological Science (CAPS) bridges the gap between theoretical research and applied practice by providing evidence-based solutions to societal challenges.

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