Evidence for court reform

Yvette Tinsley is driven by a strong sense of social justice in her research into criminal law, sentencing, and law and forensic science.

Associate Professor Yvette Tinsley, School of Law

Associate Professor Yvette Tinsley’s most powerful early experience of seeing criminal law in action came during the 1984–85 miners’ strike in the United Kingdom. The daughter of a miner, Associate Professor Tinsley was at secondary school in Nottinghamshire when the strike began.

“The road where we lived backed on to a field used by the flying pickets. My friends and I would get off the school bus in our school uniforms and the police would regularly stop us to ask if we were going to the picket line,” she says.

“I saw the way the law could affect people’s everyday lives. That experience and others like it have informed my career.”

Associate Professor Tinsley, who is in Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law, has research interests in criminal law and justice, sentencing, and law and forensic science. Her work reflects her strong sense of social justice and her commitment to working on issues that can make a tangible difference to policies and attitudes.

She was the first member of her family to go to university. “I had a hunger to get out,” she says. She also had parents who believed in the value of education, and a history teacher who gave her confidence in her potential.

Associate Professor Tinsley worked in criminal practice before going back to university to study for a PhD. Her thesis examined eyewitness identification evidence in the UK and sparked what would be an ongoing interest in the role science could play in criminal justice. While researching the thesis, she also discovered she was attracted to projects that enabled her to examine the law in action.

“As part of my research, I would interview suspects and witnesses before and after an identification parade. It made me realise how much I enjoyed bringing together the theory of law and what was actually happening on the ground,” she says.

Associate Professor Tinsley came to New Zealand to join Victoria University of Wellington in 1996, never thinking it would be a long-term move. Two decades later, she still remembers what made the move so exciting.

“Within a year of coming here I was brought into the first New Zealand jury study. In the UK, that would have been the stuff dreams are made of for a researcher at an early stage of her career,” she says.

“I was also in a city where I was surrounded by the courts and the government and could get to know judges on a personal level. That made it possible to gain all kinds of insights into the way processes work and what research was needed to improve them.”

Associate Professor Tinsley has been collaborating with a team of lawyers and psychologists in Victoria, Australia, on a second jury study. The research follows up a finding from the original study that some jurors were confused about what they were supposed to do once they were in the jury room, and that improvements could be made in the way judges communicate to jurors in order to improve decision-making and juror understanding.

While courts in Victoria use the same system of judicial direction explored in the first study, New Zealand judges now sum up differently, using fewer legal terms. They integrate their oral summing-up with a set of written questions given to jurors to assist them with their deliberations.

For the second jury study, researchers interviewed jurors from 45 trials in New Zealand and 42 in Victoria.

“This time around, the New Zealand jurors were more likely to say the judges’ summing up was very helpful in assisting with their deliberations, while the comments from the Victorian jurors were similar to the original study,” says Associate Professor Tinsley.

“As a researcher, it’s really gratifying to see that what I’m doing has an impact and makes a difference.”

Another of Associate Professor Tinsley’s major research initiatives was a two-year project with Professors Elisabeth McDonald and Jeremy Finn from the University of Canterbury, examining options for reforming pre-trial and trial processes for sexual offences.

Prosecution rates for sexual offences remain low and victims are often unhappy with the system. One argument has been New Zealand should move to a less adversarial system, like many of the jurisdictions in Europe.

After sitting in on trials in Europe and speaking to victims’ groups there, Associate Professor Tinsley and her colleagues recommended New Zealand consider alternative ways of dealing with sexual offences, including outside the formal criminal justice system for appropriate cases. They also suggested reform to processes to allow for training of judges and counsel, and improvements to support systems for complainants.

“We liked many of the things we saw in Europe, but the number of trials for sexual offences that fall over at some stage of the process is about the same as here. So there is no magic bullet to reforming the system,” says Associate Professor Tinsley.

The results of the study were published in 2011 as a book: From “Real Rape” to Real Justice: Prosecuting Rape in New Zealand.

Associate Professor Tinsley’s latest project takes her back to her roots in mining communities. Following conversations with people who lost family members in the 2010 Pike River mining disaster, she and university colleague Associate Professor Nicole Moreham are researching legal responses to media intrusion into grief.

She hopes their research will “give a voice to people who don’t usually appear in research”.