Testifying through the Ages: An Examination of Current Psychological Issues on the Use of Testimonial Supports by Child, Adolescent, and Adult Witnesses in Canada

By Chong, Kristin; Connolly, Deborah A. | Canadian Psychology, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Testifying through the Ages: An Examination of Current Psychological Issues on the Use of Testimonial Supports by Child, Adolescent, and Adult Witnesses in Canada


Chong, Kristin, Connolly, Deborah A., Canadian Psychology


On February 6, 2012, Dustin Paxton was found guilty of aggravated assault and sexual assault against a former roommate and business partner in Calgary, Alberta ("Dustin Paxton Guilty of Aggravated and Sexual Assault," 2012). Paxton committed various sexual and physical offences on D. L., the 28-year-old complainant (R. v. Paxton, 2012). The complainant, whose full name could not be released due to a publication ban, testified at Paxton's trial from behind a screen (R. v. Paxton, 2012). This Canadian case was highly publicized due to the allegations of extreme abuse; it also quietly highlighted an aspect of the law that has been rarely looked at in social science research-the use of testimonial supports by adult witnesses. Although Canada's Criminal Code (1985) has allowed children younger than 18 years of age in cases involving sexual offences to request testimonial supports since 1988, it was in 2006 that the Criminal Code of Canada was amended to allow witnesses of any age to request testimonial supports in any type of offence (Bala, Paetsch, Bertrand, & Thomas, 2010). Because the criteria for admission of testimonial supports have changed over the past two decades, an important question has arisen: How do testimonial supports affect the testimonies of witnesses of all ages?

We begin with a brief discussion of three types of testimonial supports that are available to witnesses in Canada. We then discuss the constitutional arguments that were made when testimonial supports were available through the Criminal Code to child witnesses only. Next, we review the literature on the effects of testimonial supports on witnesses during testimony. We then examine published Canadian criminal cases from 1989 to 2013 that involved the use of testimonial supports by child, adolescent, and adult witnesses. Finally, we recommend future research to further examine the emotional, psychological, and legal effects of using testimonial supports, particularly in cases involving adolescent and adult witnesses.

Laws Regarding Testimonial Supports in Canada

An aspect of the law on courtroom procedure and evidence is to create conditions that encourage witnesses to provide full and candid accounts of the event(s) under investigation. Social scientists have examined witness testimony for decades to study factors that can lead to accurate (or inaccurate) testimonies from witnesses of all ages. Both Canadian law and social science scholars have recognized that vulnerable witnesses, especially children, may face particular challenges that could interfere with their ability to testify in a traditional context. The vulnerability of a child witness is determined by the judge and can be based on the apparent capabilities and demeanor of the witness, the nature of the allegations, and the circumstances of the case; it does not require that there is "exceptional and inordinate stress" experienced by the child witness (R. v. Levogiannis, 1993, para. 34). A vulnerable witness also may include the presence of a mental or physical disability (Criminal Code, 1985). A way to aid with testimony is to use testimonial supports, including screens, closed-circuit TV (CCTV), and videotaped statements.

A screen involves blocking the witness's view of the defendant. In most setups, this is done without interfering with the ability of the defendant, Crown, and trier-of-fact (i.e., the judge and jury) to see the witness. The witness can see the Crown and defense counsel, as well as the trier-of-fact, during his or her testimony (R. v. Levogiannis, 1993). CCTV allows the witness to testify from outside of the courtroom while parties in the courtroom view the testimony on a TV or computer monitor. CCTV is used to facilitate the witness's testimony by allowing him or her to testify without a face-to-face confrontation with the defendant in a less ominous and formal setting. CCTV allows the trier-of-fact, both counsels, and the defendant to see the witness even though the witness is not inside the courtroom (Davies, 1999). …

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