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Author: Diana Eades

How do you read a person their rights when English isn't their first language?

Updated Thursday, 18 February 2016
A new set of guidelines offers law enforcement officers ways to ensure language skills aren't a bar to understanding your rights when arrested.

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“You have the right to remain silent” is an expression familiar to many English speakers. But what is involved in understanding this right in police interviews, as well as the consequences of waiving the right? Extensive research on comprehension of this and other rights delivered to suspects shows that even native speakers of English do not always understand their rights. The problems are even greater for non-native speakers of English who may be able to conduct basic transactions but do not understand legal terms or complex sentences.

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Widespread concerns about communication of rights – including the right to silence – to non-native speakers of English in police interviews have led to the development and release of guidelines by the international Communication of Rights Group (CoRG). The group, co-convened by Diana Eades andAneta Pavlenko, comprises 21 linguists, psychologists, lawyers and interpreters in Australia, England and Wales and the US.

The “Guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the USA” are available here.

Drawing on the research and on our collective experience of working with non-native speakers of English in legal settings, the group articulated seven recommendations for how the police can better communicate rights to non-native speakers of English. The group hopes that the Guidelines 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.

These recommendations include development of standardised wording in plain English, standardised translations in other languages, access to an interpreter, and adoption of an “in-your-own-words” comprehension check in which suspects are asked to explain each right in their own words. If they have difficulties restating the rights in their own words in English, the interview should be terminated until a professional interpreter, with expertise in legal interpreting, is brought in.

In addition to the 2000-word Guidelines, the document provides an appendix of relevant linguistic and psychology research.

The document is being widely circulated to judicial officers, lawyers and police officers, and associations to which they belong.

Some initial responses are very positive, with one Australian judge saying that she “will be referring to [it] often”.

We are also asking professional organisations in linguistics, psychology and linguistics to endorse the Guidelines. The first endorsement has come from the Executive Committee of the American Association of Applied Linguistics, and the document will go to a membership vote at the Association’s conference in April 2016. Other professional organisations invited to endorse the document include the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, theAustralian Linguistics Society, and the International Association of Forensic Linguists.

There is no copyright on this Guidelines document, and we welcome its dissemination to any interested people or organisations.

This article was originally published by Language on The Move


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