Benchmark: Best practice – best evidence with vulnerable people

Plain English summary

The Donald Beasley Institute is doing a new project.

We hope it will help people with learning disability or other communication difficulties who are involved in the legal system or who are dealing with legal issues.

One way of making sure that people get the support and assistance they need is to make sure lawyers and judges know how to communicate with disabled people.

Another way to make sure people get the support and assistance they need is to help lawyers and judges know how the legal system can provide support to people. 

In England and Wales, lawyers and judges have become better at working with people with learning disabilities by using guidelines that tell and show them how to communicate, and who they can go to for extra support.

These guidelines have really helped lawyers and judges do a better job.

The Benchmark project will make similar guidelines so that lawyers and judges get better at representing New Zealanders with learning disability or other communication difficulties.

We hope it will improve the communication skills of lawyers and judges and help them do a better job in New Zealand.

The guidelines will be available on a website for free. The Benchmark website will be ready for lawyers and judges to use in February 2018.

The project has a Steering Committee of experts and experts by experience.

The New Zealand Law Foundation and the IHC Foundation have funded this project.

The project team is Brigit Mirfin-Veitch (Donald Beasley Institute), Emily Henderson (Senior Solicitor, Henderson Reeves), Kirsten Hanna (AUT University) and Kate Diesfeld (AUT University).


About the project

The ability to recognise and respond to vulnerability within the legal system is increasingly understood as essential for quality legal representation and just outcomes. While not inherently vulnerable, some children and young people, disabled people, people experiencing mental distress and those with other communication impairments often require greater understanding and support to effectively participate in legal proceedings. Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing legal system and legislation provide scope to accommodate individuals who may be vulnerable within legal processes and proceedings. However despite their existence, these accommodations are not universally understood or applied.

The New Zealand Law Foundation and IHC Foundation have partnered to fund a new online resource for legal practitioners. Named Benchmark, this project is designed to increase awareness among legal professionals of the diverse range of vulnerable children and adults within the legal system, their specific needs, and how best to address them.

Specifically, the project will facilitate the development of free, evidence-based guidelines designed to provide accessible information on best practice to aid lawyers, judges and other legal professionals to work more effectively with vulnerable witnesses and defendants. It is intended that Benchmark will have enduring impact by drawing together the latest research, case law, and policy to assist legal professionals in their work with vulnerable people. 

Up to ten online guidelines are planned, including: case management in cases involving vulnerable witnesses and defendants; planning to question a child or adult with a learning (intellectual) disability; planning to question a child or adult with Neurodisability; planning to question children and young people; general principles for working with witnesses and defendants with mental distress; planning to interview a person who is Deaf; responding to ethnicity and culture in Aotearoa New Zealand; the role of Communication Assistants; and effective participation of children, young people, and vulnerable adult defendants. Each guideline will specifically be written for the New Zealand context, and will be reviewed by relevant experts to ensure maximum quality and utility.  A similar model has proven effective in the United Kingdom whereby evidence-based resources provided by Advocates Gateway positively impact on how legal advocates and judges communicate with vulnerable children and adults ( The Aotearoa New Zealand online resource aims to have a similar impact. This low-cost, accessible and easily updated resource will improve legal representation and decision-making with vulnerable individuals.

Benchmark is well timed. It aligns with a strong commitment to enhanced practice with vulnerable witnesses expressed by the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice and legal professionals. Benchmark also builds on previous and current research relating to vulnerable groups within the legal system. Dr Brigit Mirfin-Veitch (Donald Beasley Institute) and Professor Kate Diesfeld (AUT University) have recently completed research on witnesses and parties with intellectual disability. Dr Kirsten Hanna (AUT University) and Dr Emily Henderson (Henderson Reeves Law) worked together on the 2010 report on child witnesses in New Zealand. Dr Henderson recently completed research in England and Wales on reforms relating to vulnerable children, including The Advocate’s Gateway toolkits. Both these research projects received New Zealand Law Foundation funding and each had transformative impacts by communicating key issues and strategies for working with children and adults who may be vulnerable in legal proceedings or contexts. A Steering Committee comprised of disabled people, communication experts, academics, legal professionals, cultural advisors and representatives from the New Zealand Police, Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Commission has been implemented to provide high-level guidance and advice to the project team. 


  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited delegate, Asia Europe Federation to 16th Annual Informal Asia –Europe Seminar on Human Rights and people with disability, Beijing, China, November 8-10, 2016.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited guest lecturer, Chinese University of Law and Politics, Beijing, China, 7 November 2016. (Topic - Disability Research).
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. (2016, November). Learning from experience: A pragmatic approach to transforming legal practice. Presentation at the meeting of ASID New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker, Institute of Judicial Studies Seminar on “Communication in the Courtroom”, Auckland, 30 September, 2016.