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Why directive-leading questions are not useful in court

Jaqueline Wheatcroft

Research by a University of Gloucestershire professor, into directive-leading questions in cross-examinations, has helped improve the law in England and Wales. 

Consider how different these questions are: “Did anything happen?” is a non-leading question; “Did he touch you?” is what’s called a non-directive leading question; and “He didn’t touch you, did he?” is what’s called a directive-leading question. The latter is the most problematic and can be damaging to the accuracy of witness reports. 

In 2015 Jacqueline Wheatcroft (Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Gloucestershire) and colleagues published a key paper in Criminal Law Review which considered a legal definition for leading questions, the body of research and the appropriateness of leading witnesses in cross-examination.

Professor Wheatcroft said:
“Our research showed that directive forms of leading questioning were a primary concern in cross-examination, and that there was a problem with the way the law defined leading questions. The law needed refinement and revision, and we argued that directive-leading questions should be prohibited in cross-examination.

“There have been a number of high-profile cases in which vulnerable witnesses had to re-live experiences in detail under cross-examination in court. My vision is that all witnesses and interviewees can be supported to give of their best evidence, in investigations, interviews and judicial settings worldwide.”

When cross-examination techniques were under scrutiny as never before, Professor Wheatcroft’s work broke new ground – contributing to the Inns of Court College of Advocacy (ICCA) ‘20 Principles of Questioning’, which guide the ways in which children and vulnerable witnesses should be examined in the court process. 

The principles are developed to give practice-led guidance to delegates on the ICCA’s national training programme, with a view to incorporating them into professional practice when dealing with witnesses who are vulnerable. 

A person can be vulnerable by virtue of age, immaturity, or a plethora of other reasons including learning disability, autism, suffering from a hearing impairment or the effects of a stroke, or hidden disabilities such as Asperger’s, PTSD, ADHD, dyslexia, or speech and language difficulties.

As well as research, Professor Wheatcroft is the Programme Director for the University of Gloucestershire MSc in Forensic Psychology. The university also offers undergraduate degrees in PsychologyCriminology & Psychology, and Forensic Psychology.