Two new papers

Two new academic papers give detailed background on the legal and linguistic issues behind the problems with the use of covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials that are canvassed on this site.

They are expanded, updated and formalised versions of material you can find via the StartProblem, Cause, Case Study and Solution tabs in the top menu.

The legal one (which accompanies the recent Call to Action from linguists to the Australian judiciary) will appear in May this year. The linguistics one is due out at the end of the year.

If you are new to the topic, the quickest introductions are the videos:

Watch them both – you won’t regret it! And questions or comments are always welcome.

Now to the new papers …

Fraser, H. (in press). Thirty years is long enough: It’s time to create a process that ensures covert recordings used as evidence in court are interpreted reliably and fairly. Journal of Judicial Administration.

This paper outlines a number of serious problems arising from the handling within the legal process of covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials. These problems relate specifically to four key areas, namely: translation of material in languages other than English, transcription of indistinct English, attribution of utterances to speakers, and ‘enhancing’ of poor quality audio. The paper traces the problems back to the landmark High Court judgment of Butera 1987, and attributes them to insufficient understanding within the judiciary of well-established but counter-intuitive findings of linguistic science regarding factors that affect the reliable interpretation of recorded speech. Several possible solutions to the problems are canvassed, and it is recommended that the most promising way forward is via enhanced communication and collaboration between law, law enforcement and linguistic science.

Fraser, H. (in press). Forensic transcription: How confident false beliefs about language and speech threaten the right to a fair trial in Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics.

Everyday knowledge about language and speech, or ‘folk linguistics’, incorporates a number of false beliefs that have a negative effect in a range of areas, nowhere more so than in the criminal justice system (e.g. Solan, Ainsworth & Shuy, 2015). One lesser known area where false beliefs have a major impact is forensic transcription (interpretation of indistinct covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials). Without consultation of the linguistic sciences, the law has developed processes that allow police transcripts to ‘assist’ the courts in making out unintelligible covert recordings (Fraser 2017a). The present article uses a case study of a real murder trial to bring the actual and potential injustice this creates to the attention of linguistic science, and examine the issues from a linguistics perspective. Having laid out the problem, it goes on to consider potential solutions, arguing that creating a better process requires deep collaboration between linguistics, law and law enforcement. From linguists, it requires improved theoretical understanding of the nature and structure of the false beliefs that underlie the existing legal processes, as well as development of a more general theoretical account of the process of transcription and the nature of transcripts.

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