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Interviewing vulnerable suspects

20 October 2022
Ensuring police interviews are fair for all

Dr Celine van Golde's new book, Interviewing Vulnerable Suspects, provides police and others working in the criminal justice system with guidelines for identifying and accommodating vulnerable suspects.

Dr Celine van Golde's new book, Interviewing Vulnerable Suspects.

According to the law in Australia – as in many jurisdictions around the world – fairness to the accused is paramount. 

In her newly released book, ‘Interviewing Vulnerable Suspects: Safeguarding the process’, co-author Dr Celine van Golde addresses how to ensure the fair and equal treatment of suspects being interviewed in the criminal justice system. 

“People are inherently vulnerable by virtue of their contact with the criminal justice system,” said Dr van Golde, senior lecturer in Forensic Psychology in the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology

“But there are certain characteristics that exacerbate this existing vulnerability. If someone is inherently more vulnerable than another, is the standard process of police inquisition sufficiently fair for all?”

Focusing on the police practice of investigative interviewing, the book offers uniform police, detectives, and other legal professionals a set of guidelines for identifying specific vulnerabilities, as well as practical guidance for adjusting interviews to accommodate vulnerable groups. 

The handbook discusses eight different vulnerabilities and recommends individual adjustments that can be made during the police interview process.

Vulnerabilities identified include:

  • Older adult suspects
  • Suspects with mental illness
  • Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) and First Nations suspects
  • Intoxicated suspects
  • Children as suspects
  • Suspects with Intellectual and Learning Impairments (Intellectual Disability, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder)
  • Suspects with hearing impairment.

Senior lecturer, Dr Celine van Golde

For example, when interviewing suspects that may have mental illness, guidelines suggest police observe the suspect and their interactions with others prior to the interview and be ready to request a psychological evaluation if there is doubt of their capacity to engage. 

Likewise, as suspects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may be more compliant than suspects without ASD, it is important to make sure they understand the interview process when explaining it, and not just agree through a desire to please the interviewer. To assess understanding, a suspect with ASD could be asked to repeat the caution back in their own words.

“Police and other professionals in the criminal justice system are generally mindful of the need to accommodate vulnerable suspects, but they often, understandably, lack the knowledge and skills needed to do so,” Dr van Golde said. 

“Only recently is training for police catching up with the understanding that certain vulnerabilities can impact the interview process.”

Because police officers are not trained health professionals, Dr van Golde explained, it can be difficult for them to initially identify vulnerabilities, particularly in situations where the suspect does not self-identify as being vulnerable, or where the vulnerability is invisible. 

“Issues arise when legal professionals do not recognise or account for vulnerabilities. We see more wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice,” she said.

“By accommodating vulnerable suspects, not only do we increase public trust in our legal system, but we increase fairness – and the possibility of justice – for all.” 

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