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

[7-460] Article

L Sas, “The Interaction Between Children’s Developmental Capabilities and the Courtroom Environment: The Impact on Testimonial Competency” Research Report (RR02-6e), November 2002, Department of Justice, Canada.


This paper highlights current research pertaining to the ability of child witnesses to interface with the criminal justice system. The findings overwhelmingly support further amendments to the legislation, as well as significant procedural changes in the way in which child witnesses are questioned on the stand.

Researchers warn that there are a number of skills which are demanded of child witnesses that are not readily available until children are at least ten years of age or older. These include:

  • making inferences about others’ intentions, taking another person’s point of view and comprehending hypothetical questions

  • children lack knowledge about the way in which the criminal justice system works and are naive in their understanding of their role as witnesses

  • children generally view adults as omniscient, offering little or no details in their accounts because they believe that the adults already know what has happened to them

  • children’s abilities to tell time, estimate weight, height and distance etc., suggests that children develop these skills very slowly over primary school

  • preschool aged children generally understand words with only one or two syllables, but generally they can respond in short full sentences

  • early primary school aged children have developed sufficient language skills to participate in everyday language, but will have difficulty with the language employed in the courtroom

There is a need to modify the complexity and nature of questions put to children on the stand and to treat child witnesses in a more sensitive and enlightened manner so that they can share their experiences with the court. Better implementation of existing legislative provisions to reduce child witness stress in the courtroom and less restrictions on the use of various provisions with child witnesses must occur. Unless further attempts are made to modify the way in which children’s evidence is solicited, children will not be able to give the court full and candid accounts of what has happened.


Acknowledgment: this article was prepared by Professor Louise Sas for the Department of Justice, Canada. Reproduced with permission.