Lawyer wins award for ground-breaking research

by Miklos Bolza02 Sep 2015
Emily Henderson, a Whangarei lawyer, has been given an international award recognising her work towards the methods that courts use when handling vulnerable defendants and witnesses.

A senior solicitor at Henderson Reeves Connell Rishworth, Henderson has accepted the International Investigative Interviewing Research Group Academic Excellence Award for 2015.

While at Cambridge in 2013, Henderson conducted research on lawyers and judges who interviewed individuals for evidence in court. Using this information, she completed seven papers analysing the way in which vulnerable people were dealt with.

Henderson told the Northern Advocate that lawyers and judges communicated in ways beyond the ability of vulnerable people, especially children, to understand.

This was of particular concern in sexual abuse cases where suggestive language used during cross-examination could influence the defendant’s or witness’ response, she said.

“[Study] after study … have found that the language cross-examiners use with children is frequently inappropriate,” Henderson wrote in an article on the NZ Law Society webpage. 

“[Research] also shows that judges and prosecutors very rarely intervene, even where the cross-examination has slid completely off the rails.”

This problem extended beyond children too, she added. 

“Studies also suggest a far higher proportion than previously realised of adult witnesses and especially adult defendants have significant undiagnosed learning disorders which interfere with their ability to communicate in court.”

As a result of her research, she recommended the use of a third party expert to monitor and advise lawyers and judges to further provide assistance to the vulnerable in court.

“The assistant is often a speech and language therapist who is independent, neutral and will monitor what everyone is saying and give advice to lawyers on how to ask questions so a child understands. It’s changing the way lawyers understand language,” Henderson said during her NZ Herald interview.

This is an area which the New Zealand legal system could still improve, she says, although her research has already been implemented in some way in NZ, Australia and the UK. “It’s good to see the work out there, helping people make decisions about their policies and practices.”