Jury reasoning in child sexual abuse trials

Changing what we know about jury reasoning

Jury reasoning in child sexual abuse trials

Child abuse is a deeply sensitive issue, and the way cases are prosecuted have real impacts on the lives of people involved. CSU researcher Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty and her colleagues have been conducting research to inform how cases with multiple accusations against a single person are dealt with.

"There are concerns that juries will base their decision on impressions rather than on a logical analysis of the evidence, or that they'll be overwhelmed by the large number of counts against the defendant. We found that that was not the case."– Prof Jane Goodman-Delahunty

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recognised challenges in the way cases are prosecuted when a person is accused by multiple victims. Separate trials are usually ordered, based mainly on assumptions about the way juries reason when deliberating on evidence from multiple accusers. The concern is that separate trials have meant abusers escape conviction, partly because the jury never hears the full story.

CSU's Prof Jane Goodman-Delahunty and colleagues investigated the reasoning processes of juries in 90 realistic simulated joint and separate trials of child sexual abuse. Mock jurors were more likely to convict a defendant in a joint trial compared to a separate trial involving a single complainant, but their reasoning processes showed no evidence of unfair prejudice.

This research is being discussed in the legal community, and is informing the Royal Commission, which is currently putting together recommendations about our criminal justice system’s response to child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. Initial steps have been taken which may, in time, see changes in the way in which complex child sexual abuse cases are prosecuted.

The research

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is raising public awareness of a deeply significant social issue in Australia and elsewhere. CSU researcher Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty, along with Professor Annie Cossins UNSW, and CSU Research Associate Natalie Martschuk have been researching a complex issue encompassing psychological and legal issues, to contribute to the work of the Commission.

Their research responds to a matter identified by the Royal Commission: that single offenders often abuse multiple victims, especially in the context of institutions. When such cases are prosecuted, they are often divided into separate trials for different complainants, based on assumptions about how juries think and process evidence.

Their research tested the reasoning of juries while deliberating about multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Using 90 mock juries and a professionally acted trial involving charges of child sexual abuse in an institutional setting, they examined whether evidence of multiple offences (presented in joint trials or as tendency evidence) affects the ability of juries to make fair decisions.

"Tendency and coincidence evidence, and when it should be admitted, is a contentious issue within the legal profession."– Leigh Sanderson, Special Counsel to the Royal Commission

Program highlights

Large-scale jury research producing the most realistic results possible

Looking at the laws of evidence as they are applied in the NSW context, with relevance to other jurisdictions nationally and globally.

This research has been widely circulated and discussed extensively in the legal community

Program impact

Informing the Royal Commission, which is currently preparing its final report and recommendations.

The research has been cited in legal proceedings before the High Court of Australia. The NSW Office of the DPP referred to this research as a point of argument against a High Court appeal.

The research is informing debate about a contentious issue in the legal community.

"I think (the research findings apply) across the board to multi-charge trials … any case where you’d look at tendency evidence … We do it in fraud trials, we do it in drug trials, we do it in robbery trials."– Kara Shead SC, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Director's Chambers Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions NSW

Next steps

The next steps will be determined after the Royal Commission hands down its findings, and the Government's response to the final report.

Staff biographies

Jane Goodman-Delahunty
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Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty is an experimental psychologist and lawyer. Her empirical legal studies foster evidence-based decisions to promote social, procedural and distributive justice within organisations and the community.

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Funding and collaborators

In collaboration with Prof Annie Cossins (UNSW), Natalie Martschuk (CSU Research Associate).

Funded by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

CSU aims to create a world worth living in

This research is informing debate and contributing to developing communities with strong social frameworks, where diversity and harmony reside.

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