A call to action: Australian linguists call on the judiciary to reform practices for using covert recordings as evidence in court

Recent meetings of the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS) and the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA) voted unanimously to send a Call to Action to the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA), asking them to facilitate review and reform of current practices for admission and use of covert recordings as evidence in criminal trials.

Find out why Australian linguists are so concerned about injustice arising from the handling of forensic audio here.

The Call to Action is auspiciously dated 8 December 2017, exactly 30 years since the landmark High Court ruling of Butera 1987, used to this day as a precedent in countless trials to enable highly problematic use of covert recordings. It was accompanied by a paper that will appear in the Journal of Judicial Administration: Thirty years is long enough: It’s time to create a process that ensures covert recordings used as evidence in court are interpreted reliably.

Here’s the text of the Call to Action

“We write on behalf of the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS) and the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA).

“These organisations wish to call on the Australian judiciary, through you, to review and reform the legal handling of covert recordings used as evidence in Australian courts. As explained in the attached article, there are substantial problems with the processes developed within the law over the past 30 years that are creating actual and potential injustice in our courts.

“These problems relate to four main areas:

  • translation of covert recordings in languages other than standard Australian English
  • transcription of indistinct English in covert recordings
  • attribution of utterances in covert recordings to particular speakers
  • use of ‘enhanced’ versions of poor-quality covert recordings.

“We would be grateful if you could circulate this document to relevant organisations.

“We have established a Reference Group on covert recordings, chaired by Dr Helen Fraser, to facilitate discussion of these matters. Perhaps you might encourage formation of a similar group of appropriate representatives from law and law enforcement, to liaise with our group.

“We believe the best starting point is to convene a 1-2 day workshop to discuss the issues raised by the attached article and related materials, to be held in the first quarter of 2018. We would like to hear back from you with a formal response by the end of February. In the meantime we are available for informal discussion or consultation on any aspect.”

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