Historically, scientists, the courts and the general public have regarded children who made allegations of sex abuse extremely sceptically. Scientists in the now-distant past estimated that the vast majority of such complaints were false (which term includes both deliberate deception and mistake), with some studies putting false accusations at 93% and 94% (see Spencer and Flin, 1993). This attitude prevailed among many psychologists until very recently. Even in 1981, it was still possible to find English estimates of false accusations of sexual offences generally set at 90% (Spencer and Flin, 1993). However, since the late 1970s researchers have challenged this scepticism and in a number of studies reversed earlier 'findings', estimating the percentage of children's false allegations of sexual abuse in single figures (Spencer and Flin, 1993). Simultaneously, researchers found that children's reliability and accuracy as witnesses per se was far higher than had previously been believed and that children's abilities are not dissimilar to those of adults, if their interviewing is appropriate (Goodman, Aman and Hirshman, 1987; Milne and Bull, 1999).
This chapter considers the impact of these advances in psychologists' knowledge of children on the ways in which lawyers imagine and discuss child sex assault complainants in criminal trials. Many commentators have criticised defence counsel for continuing to advocate implausible and prejudicial stereotypes of children as unreliable witnesses (see Spencer and Flin, 1993). This chapter also discusses the findings of the author's qualitative study of a small sample of 14 experienced New
Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts, Second Edition Edited by D. Carson and R. Bull. © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Zealand and five English barristers regarding their attitudes to child witnesses in child sex trials, contrasting their opinions with the psychological research. It argues that despite the changes legislation has introduced to the trial as the result of psychological research, the respondents were relatively unaware of advances in psychological knowledge, and retained outmoded views of child complainants as unreliable witnesses.
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