Communication and justice
: the introduction of visual cues into the court system to improve justice outcomes for Aboriginal people

  • Lorraine Jean Teece

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    Statistics show the concerning over-representation of Aboriginal Australians in custody per head of population, is of extreme concern. This imbalance is difficult to ignore and requires urgent remedial action.

    The causes of this imbalance are many, the most often quoted being poverty, dislocation, unemployment and the abuses caused by overuse of alcohol and drugs. This thesis examines a factor that has not been considered before.

    Research has indicated a significant problem with the complexity of legal language and courtroom behaviours when Aboriginal people are called before a magistrate. Court personnel are often seemingly unaware of Aboriginal communication behaviours, and misinterpret silences and single word responses to complex questions. These and other issues are discussed in this thesis and recommendations for courtroom behaviour modifications are suggested to increase the comprehensibility of court processes for Aboriginal people.

    The Australian courtroom is Western, steeped in a tradition that includes hidden protocol, and which is heavily reliant on complex formal and legal language (Eades 1983a). There has been limited research into the modifications required in court systems and behaviours to make the processes and questioning techniques clear to Aboriginal people, to allow them to answer questions and make statements in the way their cultural upbringing dictates, and have those responses accepted as valid court protocol. The modifications must demonstrate an awareness of the place of silences, the use of body language and gestures, and lack of eye contact in Aboriginal social interaction. Complex questioning techniques must be replaced by simple statements and questions, and graphic clues must be used to improve communication with people whose culture and upbringing relies on visual imagery.

    This project investigates how misunderstanding of these culturally-based communication behaviours can mitigate against fair and reasonable treatment of Aboriginal people within court proceedings, and how visual interpretation can support the Aboriginal person’s understanding of language used in the courts, and result in clearer communication between court officials and Aboriginal defendants and witnesses.

    This Research project is the first major investigation into the ways visual cues could be used in a courtroom to simplify the complexities of legal language, and improve comprehension by Aboriginal people in interpreting complex court language. It seeks to answer these significant questions:
    1. Are Aboriginal values different from Western Values?
    2. Do mismatches between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal speech patterns, speech mannerisms and non-verbal behaviours lead to confusion and misunderstanding in court?
    3. Do many Aboriginal people have difficulty comprehending and speaking English?
    4. Do Aboriginal people have difficulty in comprehending and responding to the formal English words and phrases, and questioning techniques that are used by the police and in courtrooms?
    5. Can the complexities of legal language be minimised by employing visual communication props and tools?

    The above research questions will be answered through detailed case studies of language used in the courtroom situation; and by qualitative data collected using Aboriginal Methodology.

    Aboriginal people’s knowledge and ways of knowing and being will be used to identify factors causing this miscommunication. It is expected that this study could potentially be of benefit in other professional areas concerned with Aboriginal services and welfare beyond courtroom processes and procedures.
    Date of AwardNov 2017
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorEdmund Aughterson (Supervisor) & Brian Devlin (Supervisor)

    Cite this