Communication guidelines for police interviews

Published 17 November 2015
Adjunct Professor Diana Eades

Adjunct Professor Diana Eades

A University of New England academic recently co-convened an international working group that has released guidelines on how to communicate rights to non-native speakers of English in police interviews.

Widespread concerns about communication of rights to non-native speakers of English in police interviews have led to the development and release of guidelines by the Communication of Rights Group (CoRG) consisting of 21 linguists, psychologists, lawyers and interpreters.

UNE researcher, Adjunct Professor Diana Eades, said the guidelines echo concerns raised in Justice Stephen Hall’s ruling last year in the case of a Western Desert Aboriginal speaker of Pintupi (Western Australia v Gibson 2014).

Justice Hall ruled that the suspect’s confession to murder was not voluntary because he did not understand the right to silence, and he should have been provided with an interpreter.

The Chief Justice of Western Australia told ABC News in September 2015 that this is not an isolated problem, and the lack of interpreters, which can affect all stages of the criminal justice system, may result in innocent people being sent to prison.

Drawing on linguistic and psychological research, as well as their collective experience of working with specific cases, CoRG has set out seven recommendations for the communication of the right to silence to non-native speakers of English in police interviews.

“Many people are unaware of the linguistic complexity involved when suspects are told of their right to remain silent in a police interview, and the consequences that follow if they choose to waive this right,” Prof Eades said.

“Research shows that even native speakers of English do not always understand the right to silence, also known as the caution. The problems are even greater for non-native speakers of English.

“Even if they can maintain a conversation in English, non-native speakers of English may not have sufficient proficiency to understand legal terms, complex sentences, or English spoken at fast conversational rates.

“If asked if they understand their rights, they may say ‘yes’ out of fear or deference to authority.”

Comprehension difficulties may not be immediately obvious to police investigators, who are not trained in assessing language proficiency, but failure to communicate the right to silence, and other rights, may compromise the integrity of the investigation.

The 2000-word guidelines document includes recommendations for standardised wording in plain English, standardised translations in other languages and access to an interpreter.

Most importantly, the guidelines recommend adoption of an ‘in-your-own-words requirement’, meaning that suspects are required to explain each right in their own words.

If this causes difficulties for the suspect, the interview should be terminated until a professional interpreter, with expertise in legal interpreting, is brought in.

Professor Aneta Pavlenko, of Temple University in the USA and co-convener of the group, said that while the document deals specifically with the right to silence in Australia, England, Wales and the USA, the principles applied in the document have widespread relevance.

“We hope that our recommendations, grounded in scholarly research and practical experience, will contribute to a better understanding of difficulties for non-native speakers of English in police interviews, and result in moves to better protect the rights of these suspects and afford them equal treatment in the law,” Prof Pavlenko said.

Access the complete document online at:

For further information contact the convenors of the Communication of Rights Group:
Diana Eades on or call +61 458 751178; or
Aneta Pavlenko on