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Street legal

Improving young people’s understanding of legal rights

Research | Frameworks in Action

By Jeff Green

A pair of graduate students say their research could have significant implications for Canada’s justice system.

Meagan McCardle and Kirk Luther are working on a unique collaborative project in the Faculty of Science aimed at improving young people’s understanding of their legal rights.

Communicating legal rights to youth

Across the country, police organizations use their own versions of what’s called a Youth Waiver Form in order to communicate legal rights to a young person. The problem is, the forms are complicated. In fact, research led by Memorial indicates youth understand only about 40 per cent of what’s contained in the forms – which often contain complex sentences and difficult words. Researchers say some of the wording require youth to have a post-secondary level of education in order to understand them.

“We are striving to create a version of the waiver form that will be comprehended by the vast majority of youth.” — Kirk Luther

Ms. McCardle and Mr. Luther – both of whom are Memorial alumni – are now leading a project aimed at improving those results. They’re working with the Psychology and Law Lab which studies human behaviour within the criminal justice system. The project is led by Dr. Brent Snook and also includes John House, a former superintendent with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

The research team includes from left Kirk Luther, Meagan McCardle, Dr. Brent Snook and John House.
From left: Kirk Luther, Meagan McCardle, Dr. Brent Snook and John House.
Photo: Chris Hammond

“Our goal is to create a simplified waiver form that is tailored to the cognitive abilities of youth and one that results in high levels of comprehension,” said Mr. Luther, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology and a researcher on the project. “We are striving to create a version of the waiver form that will be comprehended by the vast majority of youth.”

By removing complex legal jargon and shortening the overall length of the forms, the team has seen youth comprehension levels dramatically increase to 80 per cent.

But the goal is to increase that number even more.

“Youth can only benefit from the protections of their rights if they understand them.” — Meagan McCardle

Memorial-produced video

In collaboration with the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), the team has developed an animated video. They’re now studying whether young people’s comprehension will increase further compared to when police officers communicate rights verbally.

“Using scientific psychological theories such as cognitive load theory, we have created, and are empirically testing, a video that is designed to foster maximum understanding among youth,” said Ms. McCardle, who is completing a master’s degree in Experimental Psychology and is the primary investigator.

Still image from the CITL-produced video.
Still image from the CITL-produced video.
Photo: Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL)

“This is important because youth can only benefit from the protections of their rights if they understand them and the more they understand the better protected they are.”

“My role has been very diverse,” added Ms. McCardle. “It has involved helping design the project, writing and amending our ethics application, drafting the script for our animation, communicating with community centres in the city to recruit youth and testing youth participants, among other things.”

Mr. Luther says the videos could help standardize how legal rights are conveyed to youth, eliminating any room for human error in delivery.

“If successful, our collaboration with CITL could result in the animation being used in police organizations across Canada,” he noted. “Furthermore, the technology could help deal with potential language barriers as well.”

This story was also published in the Aug. 15 edition of The Telegram as part of a regular summer series on research at Memorial University.


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