Research Hub for Language in Forensic Evidence
About the Research Hub
The Research Hub for Language in Forensic Evidence has been established to serve as a national hub coordinating research involving linguistics, law, and law enforcement.
The main aim of the Hub is to assist the courts in ensuring that language and speech used in forensic evidence is managed in the best interests of justice and fairness.
How is language and speech used in forensic evidence?
Language and speech can be used as forensic evidence in a range of ways.
- Speech evidence commonly takes the form of covert recordings, which are a major focus of the Hub’s work. However, spoken language appears in other kinds of evidence, whether recorded (for example in a police interview) or remembered by an ‘earwitness’
- Written language also appears as forensic evidence, for example in documents, emails, text messages or social media. Occasionally evidence features lip reading, sign language and other language modalities
- Language and speech are also used in presenting evidence in court, for example when expert witnesses explain difficult concepts, or when witnesses from different language and cultural backgrounds recount their evidence
What are covert recordings?
Police investigating serious crimes may, with special permission, obtain covert (secret) recordings of conversations between suspects or persons of interest – typically by intercepting telephone calls, or by ‘bugging’ houses or cars.
Most covert recordings are used only during the investigation. However, if the case comes to trial, some may go on to be used as evidence in court. The main concern of the Hub is with covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials. The evidence provided by covert recordings can be very powerful, as it effectively allows the jury to hear speakers making admissions they would not be prepared to make openly. Of course, for this powerful evidence to be used fairly, it is essential that the jury form an accurate impression of what is being said in the recording, and who is saying it.
This can be more difficult than you might expect, for a range of reasons. One major problem is that, since covert recordings have to be obtained secretly, they are often of very poor quality – to the point it is hard to make out the content without the assistance of a transcript. Another problem is that covert recordings often contain speech in languages other than English, or in varieties of English that might be difficult for the jury to understand. In these cases, assistance is required not just from a transcript but also from a translation or interpretation.
Clearly then, it is crucial to ensure that the assistance provided by transcripts and translations is reliable and effective. This is a major focus of the Hub’s work.
Why we need a Research Hub
In the 1980s, when the law first had to deal with covert recordings, it was thought that the reliability of transcripts and translations could be evaluated by responsible listeners, like lawyers and judges, on the basis of educated common knowledge. So, on that basis, the courts went ahead and developed procedures for admitting various forms of assistance to help juries understand covert recordings.
The problem is that linguistic science has shown that educated common knowledge about language and speech is often wrong. For example, listeners’ understanding of recorded speech is influenced in counter-intuitive ways by factors that are not well controlled by current legal procedures. This means the courts are unable to protect juries from being influenced of misleading transcripts, translations and other forms of ‘assistance’.
Since Australian linguists have become aware of this situation, they have demonstrated many instances of actual and potential injustice. Importantly, the problems are not always on one side or the other: they affect both prosecution and defence.
The Forensic Transcription Australia website gives extensive background on these topics.
The Australian Linguistics ‘Call to Action'
At the end of 2017, a ‘Call to Action’ was initiated by the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS), and joined by the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA), the Australian Speech Science and Technology Association (ASSTA) and the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AusIT). The Call to Action took the form of a letter seeking to inform the judiciary of the problems the linguists had become aware of, and asking them to review and reform the handling of indistinct covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials.
The letter was delivered to the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA), from where it made its way to the Council of Chief Justices (CCJ) and was eventually taken up by the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity (JCCD) – who have an impressive track record of working with linguistics scholars to improve awareness of language and speech issues that affect the fairness of legal procedures.
Communication with the judiciary was taken forward by a small working party of committed individuals, including Professor Diana Eades, Professor Lesley Stirling, Mr Alex Bowen, The Hon. Peter Gray, Associate Prof Georgina Heydon and Professor Sandra Hale (among others). At the end of 2019, a working party of judges established by the JCCD acknowledged the concerns of the Linguistics Call to Action, and agreed to facilitate collaborative research aiming to improve the procedures.
Towards a solution
The Research Hub for Language in Forensic Evidence has been formed by the University of Melbourne as a joint venture of the Faculty of Arts and the School of Languages and Linguistics, in direct response to the successful outcome of the Call to Action.
We are glad to live in a democracy where this kind of engagement between law, law enforcement and academia is possible, and we look forward to working collaboratively towards solutions that serve the best interests of justice for all concerned.
Helen Fraser (Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics) is the Director of the Research Hub for Language in Forensic Evidence.
Helen has a research background in cognitive phonetics – the branch of linguistic science that investigates how speech is represented, both internally, in the minds of speakers and listeners, and externally, in writing and transcription.
For over twenty years, she has taken a major interest in forensic transcription – aiming to reveal the problems embodied in current legal procedures for assisting juries to understand covert recordings, and, most importantly to contribute to developing effective and practical solutions. More recently, she has led the Australian Linguistics Call to Action, supported by all four national linguistics organisations.
Dr Debbie Loakes is working in the Research Hub for Language in Forensic Evidence as a Research Fellow. Debbie has a research background in phonetics; in particular forensic speaker comparison, the phonetics of regional variation in Australian English and Aboriginal English, and speech processing.
Debbie is currently working on various projects related to speaker variability, and will be supporting the Hub through research and training activities. She is also the secretary of the Australian Speech Science and Technology Association.
Jennifer Graham-Williams is Executive Assistant to the Head of the School of Languages and Linguistics.