Making an impact

Ella Rhodes reports on an ESRC award for Professor Amina Memon.

A psychologist whose research has helped to overhaul the way vulnerable witnesses are interviewed has received an award from the ESRC. We spoke to Professor Amina Memon (Royal Holloway, University of London) about her career path and plans to have an impact on evidence-gathering and interviewing among those seeking asylum.

Memon’s award for Outstanding Impact in Public Policy marks the fifth year of the ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Prize. Memon, who also received £10,000 prize money, began her research career looking into eyewitness memory in adults, and both the increasing study of cognitive interviewing techniques and high-profile cases of alleged child abuse led her to tackling a tricky dilemma.

She explained: ‘There were conflicting views about whether children would make things up as innocent witnesses, or whether they could be competent witnesses if they couldn’t understand the difference between the truth and a lie.’ If the latter was the case, and children couldn’t be seen as competent witnesses, Memon said this raised serious questions on how best to investigate crimes where a child was the only witness.

Memon and colleagues adapted the cognitive interviewing technique, which involves a detailed narrative style of reporting, open-ended questions and instructions to reinstate context, and they tested it on six- to seven-year-olds and eight- to nine-year-olds following either an eye test scenario or a magic show. While the younger children struggled to provide much detail, the slightly older, and more verbal eight- and nine-year-olds, gave comprehensive, detailed and accurate testimonies.

The interview alone wasn’t the only important part of getting such detailed accounts, Memon said, but the process of building trust and rapport before an interview helped children remember and recount what had happened. Later work showed the cognitive interview technique can also be used for children with learning disabilities and, with some modifications, adults on the autistic spectrum.

In the late 1990s Memon was responsible for writing guidance on interviewing children for the Scottish Executive, including some further documents on how to interview traumatised children who were undergoing therapy but whose evidence needed to be collected without contamination from this therapy. She said: ‘I was able to directly translate the research findings that came from what we knew about how best to interview child witnesses and put this information in the guidance document.’

Next Memon began to look into the best ways to interview and gather evidence from older adults, as well as their facial recognition abilities. She said there were concerns, some quite stereotypical, about the reliability of older witnesses. However although her lab work showed older witnesses may have trouble picking out a person from an identity parade, her field work showed they are also very cautious when doing so. ‘Provided you question a person appropriately and tell them the suspect may or may not be in the identity parade, older adults can follow those instructions and be cautious where they are not sure.’

Further research also showed older witnesses were not more susceptible to confusing their recollection of events with the recollection of another witness. Indeed, Memon’s research review has shown older people to benefit from cognitive interviews perhaps even more than younger people.

Memon now plans to take a year-long career break but has plans for the next group of witnesses she hopes to work with – those seeking asylum. Addressing concerns about the perceived credibility of accounts of people in asylum interviews, she added: ‘One of the reasons people are denied asylum is because their evidence isn’t considered credible… but what’s emerging is one of the reasons for this is that it wasn’t gathered appropriately in the first place.’

As a member of the Project Advisory Board for the charity Asylum Aid, Memon said she and her colleagues hoped to have an impact on Home Office training in this area. She quoted a judge: ‘“If you could teach people as part of their legal training how to interview and take a good statement you wouldn’t have the credibility problems we have”… all the evidence points the potential for research to have an impact in this area.’ 

For a link to the award video: www.esrc.ac.uk/news-events-and-publications/impact-case-studies/protecting-vulnerable-witnesses

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