|To answer or not to answer questions is a difficult decision|
As a solicitor who specialises in drink driving law I don't get to the police station very often but nonetheless I was recently asked on Twitter whether I thought the advice printed on the top of a legal rep’s note papers, "Every police station, every day, NO COMMENT" was good advice or not. A few police officers have said over the years that they cannot understand why anybody would go “no comment” in interview as, from their point of view, no comment will ultimately result in a charge.
First, I should make clear that "Every police station, every day, NO COMMENT" was probably not intended as advice. It is the slogan of a legal rep service called “NO COMMENT” and I suspect that this rep was working for them.
You may not know but there is a thriving business in police station representative work. Solicitors are often unable to attend the police station personally, this may be because they are in court, in meetings or attending another police station when the police are ready to begin the interview. So, many will turn to rep agencies, who will dispatch someone to look after the solicitor’s client. It may not be obvious to the police or client that this is what has happened. The rep may be a police station rep, a solicitor or a duty solicitor.
When the solicitor (I’m going to say solicitor because I can only talk about me and I am a solicitor) gets to the police station he needs to advise the suspect on the law, evidence as disclosed by the police and whether the suspect should answer questions in interview.
There are five options for the interview:
1. Answer questions;
2. Don’t answer questions;
3. Put forward a prepared statement and then answer questions;
4. Put forward a prepared statement and then answer no comment; and
5. Answer some questions but not others.
In my opinion, option 5 is the worst possible approach to take and a client should never be told to do this because it will look like he is trying to avoid questions to which he has no answer, which everyone will assume is because he’s guilty! I also see little point in option 3, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
Before giving advice, a solicitor should recognise that a conviction in court does not rest upon your client being innocent or guilty. It rests upon whether sufficient evidence can be brought to bear that convinces a magistrate or jury that he is guilty. When considering what advice to give, a solicitor should always be asking “how will this approach look to a jury in six months’ time?” Many clients worry about how their approach will look to the police officer sitting in front of them but, with respect to any police officers reading this, that is the wrong way to look at the problem. If the police have sufficient evidence to charge they will do. If they don’t they won’t. While a police officer may not like you personally, it doesn’t change the test that must be applied when reaching a charging decision.
My view is that you should take a starting point that you will advise a “no comment” interview and only deviate from that position where there are good reasons to do so.
The benefit of a no comment interview is that you cannot add to the evidence against you. True a future judge may tell the jury that they can draw a proper inference from your silence but as my criminal advocacy tutor at Bar School said, “if you can’t deal with an adverse inference then you shouldn’t be practising in the criminal courts!” On the flip side, I’ve seen many people end up in court (and even in prison) because they said something in interview that the police would not have been able to prove but for their confession.
As well as not increasing the evidence against you, remaining silent will force the police to show their hand. This is particularly useful in serious cases where the police are likely to have withheld some elements of disclosure from the solicitor or may be following a staged disclosure protocol where the interview is stopped every so often for more evidence to be revealed. Withholding evidence is also a tactic employed where the evidence against a suspect is weak. In one case I dealt with the police disclosure was that the believed my client to be a suspect in a robbery because his DNA was found at the scene. They refused to reveal the location of the robbery or the nature of the DNA! We remained silent until the police were forced to reveal that the robbery took place outside the block of flats in which the suspect lived and the DNA match was to a used cigarette found by a dustbin at the entrance to the flats. Clearly answering questions would only have bolstered the police’s evidence, particularly as the client was guilty which we found out when he decided to confess against my legal advice.
In another case, a husband was accused of assaulting his wife causing bruising to her face. The police disclosed that other family members had already given an account saying that there had been no assault and that the “bruising” was in face a skin condition the wife had had for many years. The client remained silent since he could not improve the account in his favour and was released without charge upon conclusion of the interview.
Once you have heard the police set out their stall during the interview you can always decide to issue a prepared statement after the interview. I know police officers hate that and often make a big show of claiming your client has had his opportunity to give his account but, let me be blunt, if they ignore a piece of evidence because they don’t like the timing of it then they are likely to be guilty of professional misconduct and risk jeopardising their entire investigation if a judge hears that they ignored evidence. You can also put the statement as an answer to the charge should the client be charged.
Giving your account
Full comment interviews
Answering all questions has the benefit of putting forward your account early, which may make what you say more credible to a jury. Although, if you later recall something or it emerges you have missed something out then you can expect to be attacked about your change of story by the prosecution at trial. This can be a problem when events happened some time ago or in the heat of the moment when your recollection may not be perfect.
I once went to a police interview of a mobile phone shop worker accused of fraud where the police proposed to ask questions about several hundred mobile phone contracts he had sold over the previous couple of years. The idea of him being able to answer those sorts of questions accurately is ridiculous and the case is a good example of when answering questions might lead you to say something that can later be proven incorrect. He went no comment.
Giving your account avoids the risk of an inference against your client being drawn (unless of course he is caught out lying, which would be much worse for him) and it allows him to raise defences that are then for the Crown to disprove.
Prepared statements might just be the most useful tool at a solicitors’ disposal in the police station. I’ve already said that answering some questions and remaining silent on others is a terrible idea, but a good prepared statement allows you to do just that. Prior to interview the police should give the solicitor disclosure about the evidence they have and what they plan to interview about. A solicitor can then use that to craft a prepared statement that deals with the issues raised in disclosure while brushing over any points that might be difficult for the client to handle. A well drafted prepared statement can avoid an inference being drawn at court, show the jury that your client has been telling the same story from the beginning and avoid difficult questions.
I have heard of some people giving a prepared statement then answering questions. I cannot see the point of that approach since anything helpful you put in the statement can still be undone by poor answers to questions.
In addition to situations where a client does not wish to divulge all he knows to the police but does wish to give some information, prepared statements can be useful where your client is not up to being interviewed. You’ll often come across people who will not be able to stand up to even gentle questioning and are likely to do more harm than good. In those situations, a prepared statement is often the answer.
When there is sufficient evidence to convict and your client admits guilty then giving an account is the only way to divert a case away from prosecution and towards an alternative disposal such as a caution or reprimand. That is the one exception to my rule of asking yourself how an interview will look to a jury in six-months’ time. I always sound out an officer about the possibility of diverting a case away from court prior to speaking with my client. Although the stock response is that any diversion must be authorised by another officer, most officers will tell you whether they think such an outcome is likely and whether they would be willing to recommend it to their superior.
In conclusion, my view is that unless there is a positive reason for answering questions or giving a prepared statement in a police interview you should be advising your client to remain silent.