Attempts to enhance episodic retrieval focus largely on verbal strategies which do not always address the limited or impaired free recall ability of vulnerable witnesses. Asking a witness to draw while recalling episodic information has long been deemed an effective method of improving communication and cognitive performance. Thus far, research has revealed these effects within laboratory settings but with scarce attention paid to real-life interview practice. In this paper, we explore police officers’ and Registered Intermediaries’ use of drawing during investigative interviews with vulnerable witnesses. A sample of specialist practitioners, comprising of vulnerable witness interviewing police officers and Registered Intermediaries completed a self-report questionnaire. As expected, frequent use of drawing was reported by both practitioner groups, and there was a positive correlation between reported use and perceived effectiveness. There were similarities between groups in reported techniques employed when using drawing, but some differences were apparent and these were attributed to the differing functions in police and Registered Intermediary roles. Overall, a consensus between empirical research and practice is evident, but these findings warrant further exploration in order to establish whether such practice is wide-spread.

Keywords :  Drawingsketchingvulnerable witnessesintermediariesinvestigative interview


In England and Wales, all victims and witnesses1 under the age of 18 are considered as vulnerable because they are cognitively and psychological less developed than adults , and so the interview techniques deemed appropriate for supporting typically developed adults to provide the best evidence are not ordinarily appropriate for children. Accordingly, investigative interviews with children are guided by the Ministry of Justice Achieving Best Evidence which advocates the use of developmentally appropriate interview techniques, with an emphasis on the use of open questioning styles. Open questions are good because they are interviewee focused, allow children to tell about their experiences without interruption (Fisher, 1995; Poole & Lamb, 1998; Wolfman, Brown, & Jose, 2016; Wright & Powell, 2006), and eyewitness research has consistently demonstrated that the most accurate recall materialises when witnesses provide uninterrupted accounts in their own words.

However, memory for personally experienced events fundamentally relies on the capacity to bind features of an experience into an integrated episodic representation. Memory binding and encoding abilities are underdeveloped in children which means that they typically recall less episodic information than adults. Equally, children tend to employ less-exhaustive retrieval strategies than adults, which reduces episodic recall performance still. Children also generally recall less episodic information in response to open questions, because open questions, such as ‘tell me everything you remember about …dictate multiple word responses, and offer almost no interviewer guided retrieval support. It may be that these challenges are recognised by interviewers, thus resulting in limited improvement over time in the quality of questions asked of children, particularly in child sexual abuse cases. Although, with age, children’s episodic responses to open invitations improves, and so less interviewer-guided support is required, all children can benefit from external retrieval support For children with additional needs, such as learning disability or developmental disorder, many of whom often present with a distinct communication and memorial profile, free recall performance is typically further reduced, and tends not to improve with age, and so they continue to need retrieval support. For interviewers, reduced freely recalled event information inevitably means the production of less information (fewer topics and source items) to probe during the follow-up questioning phase. While ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions have been shown to be productive in children’s accounts of actions, reduced free recall increases the likelihood that interviewers will use fewer appropriate (i.e. closed prompt) questions in an attempt to collect event information, thus compromising recall accuracy. Indeed, children with atypical development are more likely to be interviewed using inappropriate questions, such as closed, suggestive, and leading. Because interviewers seldom interview children with no knowledge of what has been alleged, not only do closed questions limit opportunities for children to provide a full account, they can, inadvertently, facilitate interviewer confirmation bias. Accordingly, the challenges of gathering best evidence from children whose free recall ability is still developing, or is impaired, has encouraged researchers to seek alternative, developmentally appropriate interviewer-guided retrieval support, which does not compromise the resultant information for the purposes of the criminal justice system.


The most prominent recommendation in ABE (2011) is that interviewers adopt a phased approach to interviewing, which commences with a free recall account of a topic followed by questioning phase (a probed recall based upon the information provided in the free recall account). ABE (2011) also recommends additional strategies, such as assessment and facilitation of an interview by a Registered Intermediary, and the use of props, as appropriate (with or without an intermediary) (ABE, 2011).

Registered Intermediaries are professionals who, since 2004, have been utilised across the criminal justice system in England and Wales to enable vulnerable witnesses to give their best evidence (Victims’ Commissioner, 2018). Recruited from areas such as speech and language therapy, psychology, education, and mental health, Registered Intermediaries are appointed by the Ministry of Justice and trained to apply their communication skills within the criminal justice system. The purpose of the role is to facilitate communication with vulnerable witnesses; one of a number of ‘Special Measures’ outlined in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. During police investigations, Registered Intermediaries conduct a communication assessment of the vulnerable witness, before advising police interviewers on questioning techniques appropriate for that particular witness. Such advice may include strategies for the phrasing and pacing of questions, the frequency and timing of breaks, and in the use of communication aids or props such as drawing Similar intermediary schemes exist outside of England and Wales, for instance in Northern Ireland and Australia.

In addition to police interviewing guidance, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 also makes provision for the use of props within court settings. Here, the ‘Special Measure’ – Aids to Communication – stipulates that vulnerable witnesses may be provided with a ‘device’ considered appropriate by the court to enable questions or answers to be communicated to, or by, the witness. Additional reference to the provision of props is made in other areas of relevant law in England and Wales, and also in the Advocate’s Gateway ‘toolkits’ (a free, online resource) where research and good practice case examples are disseminated to barristers, judges and police officers. Toolkits published by the Advocate’s Gateway have been cited with approval in the Criminal Practice Directions, the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, and in three intermediary practitioner procedural guidance manuals across the world – which means that practitioners are directed to refer to the guidance when working with vulnerable victims and witnesses, both in England and Wales, and internationally. It is likely that Registered Intermediaries operating in England and Wales will make use of such guidance (including ABE, 2011), and therefore incorporate the use of props, such as drawing, into their practice.


While the cognitive benefits of drawing have been well-documented in laboratory studies, actual use in real-world practice has received only modest attention. In the available body of work that has been published about interviewer behavior (more broadly), important insights about interviewers’ perceptions and behavior have been revealed. For instance, Wheatcroft, Wagstaff, and Russell (2014), after surveying 33 specialist interviewing police officers, identified the need for simplified interview protocols to be developed – aimed specifically at those working in complex operational contexts, such as with vulnerable witnesses. Similarly, despite utilising a modest sample size of eight police officers, Wright and Powell (2006) were able to discover the basis for police officers’ underutilisation of open questions. Other studies have explored different aspects of interviewers’ practice, and indeed, one recent study has explored New Zealand police officers’ use of visual aids (Wolfman et al., 2018), but to our knowledge, no research has explored whether, in England and Wales, practitioners’ (including Registered Intermediaries’) interview behaviour is congruent with empirical findings specifically in relation to the use of drawing.

The aim of the current study is to address this significant gap in knowledge and understanding, particularly with reference to Registered Intermediaries. Here, we conducted a preliminary exploration of police officers’ and Registered Intermediaries’ perceptions and use of drawing during interviews with vulnerable witnesses in England and Wales. We predicted that, based on currently available guidance in England and Wales (e.g. ABE, 2011, Advocate’s Gateway Toolkits), a large proportion of practitioners’ would utilise drawing. We also predicted that there would be a positive relationship between frequency of use and perceived efficacy.


The current study explored police officers’ and Registered Intermediaries’ perceptions and use of drawing during investigative interviews with vulnerable witnesses. Based upon empirical research and guidance available to practitioners, we predicted that both groups were likely to use drawing during interviews with vulnerable witnesses, and that there would be a positive relationship between frequency of use and perceived efficacy.

Confirming the first prediction, it was apparent that drawing is a tool used frequently by both police officers and Registered Intermediaries, with no significant difference in reported frequency of use between these two professional groups. Practitioners also perceived drawing as being ‘very effective’ with no significant between-group differences. As one might expect, ratings of effectiveness corresponded with reported use of drawing. That is, those who reported using drawing frequently, also regarded it as highly effective. Perceived use and effectiveness may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the source of practitioners’ knowledge about the use of drawing was not explored, but it is reasonable to suggest that it is the recommendations outlined within ABE (2011) and RIPGM (2015) that have been fundamental in promoting the use of drawing across both groups; particularly given that both the aforementioned publications are universally accepted as detailing ‘gold standard’ practice and form the basis of practitioner training, resepectively. That said, it is not necessarily the case that best practice advice for conducting investigative interviews is always followed, even when interviews are digitally recorded and so open to in-depth scrutiny. Hence, it appears likely that drawing is used largely because practitioners recognise its efficacy, which naturally promotes its use. What is unclear, and warrants further investigation, is whether or not perceived effectiveness corresponds with quality and quantity of information gathered during real-life investigative interviews (as per research conducted in New Zealand.

Children were identified as witness groups that police officers believed drawing is most effective with. This is unsurprising given the previous research that has demonstrated the positive effects of drawing during investigative interviews. In particular, children tend to produce significantly more correct information when they are asked to draw and describe an event that they have witnessed, as opposed to just verbally describing it. The completeness and accuracy of accounts is also enhanced when children are asked to draw, provided that appropriate questioning methods are employed. Similarly, with regard to people with autism, some studies have found that drawing can increase access to memory stores, although this has not always been the case. Police officers and Registered Intermediaries may be aware of the memorial benefits of drawing because empirical research findings may be included in training packages. Further analysis of the training content provided to these groups will indicate whether this is the case, however, recent examination of criminal justice practitioner training suggests some disparity. If drawing is a tool or strategy that is recommended, it is important to establish whether or not the limitations of this approach are highlighted to trainees, especially given the findings relating to the adverse effects of inappropriate questioning and lack of instructions.


These findings provide new insight into practitioners’ use and perceptions of a specific interview technique, which goes some way to bridging the knowledge gap between empirical evidence and practice. For instance, this study has demonstrated that drawing is perceived as an effective interviewing tool, and one that is regularly used by both police officers and Registered Intermediaries during investigative interviews with vulnerable witnesses. It is clear from the results that practitioners use drawing in different ways, with no consistent approach being apparent. The importance of establishing the ways in which this tool is most effective, and with which particular group(s) of vulnerable witnesses, is imperative in order to provide interviewers with empirically and theoretically sound practical guidance on this strategy.


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