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Is it ‘remotely’ possible?

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Supporting the interviewing and legal representation of crime victims and suspects using digital communication methods: Is it ‘remotely’ possible? 

Reacting to COVID-19 required governments to change their practice, and the Criminal Justice System is one area that required immediate changes. Criminal investigations must continue, and victims, witnesses and suspects of crime must be interviewed. However, social distancing means that investigators are unable to conduct interviews and legal professionals are unable to communicate with clients in a traditional format. Thus, remote communication is one way currently being used to conduct interviews across the UK. However, this is not standardised and the current research-base to prove its efficacy is scarce, tentative and contradictory.

This project, funded by the ESRC under the UKRI ‘Ideas to Address COVID-19’ scheme, will produce timely and much-needed evidence-based reports and resources to enable immediate and direct impact for police and legal practitioners. Led by Professor Gavin Oxburgh, and Dr Nicci MacLeod (with Professor Dave Walsh, De Montfort University; Dr Laura Farrugia, University of Sunderland; and Mr Jago Russell, Fair Trials London), this project will contribute substantially to the evidence base around remote interviewing, ensuring it is as effective as possible without negatively impacting the most vulnerable.

We know from linguistic research that in face-to-face interviews there are differences between the interviewer and the interviewee in terms of their orientation to potential future audiences (e.g., the CPS and the Courts) and uses (i.e., as evidence) of the content of interviews, which can pose significant communicative challenges. Thus, the heightened visibility of digital equipment may (or may not) impact on this discrepancy in interviewees’ awareness of these future purposes and hidden audiences, potentially compelling them to recognise the institutional significance of their responses in a way that they generally would not in face-to-face interviews, potentially elevating the prominence of the overhearing audience and thus mitigating many of the challenges ordinarily encountered in this context. 

In addition, in cases where interviews are conducted remotely, it may not be known whether the suspect is still present and able to influence the testimony of the victim. Regarding suspects, it is already known to the project team that there have been serious concerns expressed by legal professionals as to the appropriateness of remote communication between suspects and their lawyers plus Appropriate Adults. Indeed, there is an overall dearth of research to establish the efficacy, and indeed the feasibility, of conducting this type of communication. Meanwhile, we are unaware, as yet, as to the training needs of investigators to adapt to such novel ways of working.

Through consultations with professionals, interviews with victims and suspects, experimental research and development of a piece of training software, our main objective is to produce evidence-based policy and other resources for immediate use, as well as long-term adoption of remote communication technology. Taking an innovative, interdisciplinary approach and collaborating with partners and key stake-holders, with expertise in communication, interviewing and app development, this project will address three key areas: inequalities, security and justice, and mental health, resilience and wellbeing.

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