The Interaction Between Children's Developmental Capabilities and the Courtroom Environment: The Impact on Testimonial Competency

3. LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN (continued)

3.LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN (continued)

3.6 Knowledge of Legal Terminology

As previously discussed, there is a domain specific language required of witnesses that includes legal terminology and a particular language style referred to as lawyerese or legalese. This language style characterizes the verbal communication in the courtroom between the various court persona and the child witness on the stand. Children are expected to demonstrate communicative competency in order to be able to give evidence, however the real expectation is that they be able to use and understand the language of the courtroom. Unfortunately, given what we know about the lexicon (store of words) and idiomatic expressions of most children under 10, this is unrealistic without court preparation. For very young children, scaffolding the gap between their language skills and the complex terminology used in court through court preparation is challenging.

A fair number of studies have been carried out on children's understanding of legal terminology, as previously noted in this paper. Age related differences in children's understanding of most court terminology have been consistently found. Many common legal terms such as evidence and testify are not familiar to children and younger children in particular do less well than older children when asked what legal terms mean.

Flin et al. (1989) have warned that simple recognition is not always an accurate predictor of accuracy and understanding. It is not sufficient to simply ask a child if they recognize a legal term. For example, at the child witness project in London, one child witness who was referred to a child witness project was asked if she knew what a subpoena was. She nodded, but then went on to explain that it was a male private body part (Anonymous, 1994).

In fact, in the majority of studies carried out to date, most legal terms are not accurately defined until children are ten years of age. An excellent analysis of the responses that children make when asked to define legal words that they do not really know was carried out by Saywitz et al. (1990). They found that there are typical patterns of errors made by children in response to legal terminology that they do not understand. Younger children who are under age eight, tend to make auditory discrimination errors in which they confuse the meaning of words that sound the same, and homonym errors where they do not recognize that words can have two meanings.

Walker (1993, 1994) has found the very same thing in her analyses of court transcripts. There are so many legal terms, which to children, either sound like a familiar word from their everyday language, or have a different meaning outside the context of the court. Some examples that have been frequently mentioned in the literature in studies of children's understanding of legal terminology are: jury and jewelry, a court hearing and hearing someone speak, a court and a basketball court, the party in a matter and a birthday party, and the list goes on.

Children know less vocabulary than adults, but do not always realize their lack of knowledge. They tend to guess at the meaning of words put to them, drawing examples from their own limited life experiences. It does not occur to them that a word might mean something else, because the social context is different. When corrected, young children resist the suggestion that there might be another meaning because they tend to be quite single minded and cannot conceptualize that a word can have two meanings.

Schuman et al. (1999) in their excellent article entitled Developmentally appropriate questions for child witnesses, give many examples of questions that are age inappropriate and summarize the general cognitive and language skills that children of different age ranges possess. Like others who have written about this topic, the findings demonstrate that there are a number of potential mediators of children's knowledge of legal terms, not the least of which is their vocabulary and their experience of the world. Table 4 provides a summary of the research findings on legal terminology understood by children of four age groupings.

Table 4 : Common Legal Terms and Roles Understood By A Majority of Children in Different Age Ranges
Legal terms Preschool (3-5) Early Primary (6-9) Later Primary (10-12) Early Adolescence (13-14)
JUDGE Yes Yes Yes Yes
COURT No Yes Yes Yes
POLICE Yes Yes Yes Yes
JAIL Yes Yes Yes Yes
LAWYER No No Yes Yes
TO BE FOUND GUILTY No Yes Yes Yes
ACCUSED No No Yes Yes
EVIDENCE No No No No
TESTIFY No No Yes Yes
TRIAL No No Yes Yes
JURY No No Yes Yes
STATEMENT No No No Yes
PROSECUTION No No No No
OATH No No Yes Yes
LIE Yes Yes Yes Yes
TRUTH Yes Yes Yes Yes
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