Forensic linguistics: improving the delivery of justice
Submitting InstitutionAston University
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeLegal
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology, Cognitive Sciences
Language, Communication and Culture: Linguistics
Summary of the impact
Research carried out at the Centre for Forensic Linguistics (CFL)
at Aston has achieved the following significant impacts:
- Casework: Reports for forensic investigations, and provision of
opinion and evidence for police investigations, criminal trials and
civil proceedings, have all contributed to verdicts of guilt or
innocence and to judgements in civil and appeal Courts.
- Policy development and training: Research findings have changed police
practice in interviewing witnesses and suspects, and specifically in
cases where there is an interpreted interview. Changes to Greater
Manchester Police's (GMP) taking of non-native English speaker witness
statements represents a significant, concrete example.
Forensic linguistics is the application of linguistic methods and
insights to forensic texts and contexts. In the census period, CFL
comprised Prof M. Coulthard (MC 2005 - present); Dr Tim Grant (TG,
2007-present), Dr Krzysztof Kredens (KK, 2007 - present) who were all in
post throughout the census period; Dr Kate Haworth (KH — employed at Aston
2009-present) and Dr Nicci MacLeod (NM — employed at Aston 2010-present).
CFL achieves significant impact through thematic integration of diverse
research outputs as a Centre, and thus we have elected to cite references
and impacts from all CFL staff.
This impact statement focuses on two areas of CFL:
1. Development of theory and methods in forensic text analysis [Section
3: 1, 2, 4]. To meet criteria for the admissibility of evidence, forensic
methods must be shown to be reliable and well-founded in theory.
a) In addressing the theoretical requirement — MC [Section 3: 1] provides
an understanding of idiolect and linguistic uniqueness and argues that
this provides an essential underpinning to forensic authorship
identification work. TG [Section 3: 2] addresses Coulthard and
problematises the idea of a theory of idiolect in the context of
linguistic evidence for a murder case, arguing here and elsewhere that
authorship analysis rests on the lighter observation of individual
consistency and distinctiveness of style.
b) Forensic casework requires valid, reliable and rigorous methods. CFL
research develops and evaluates methods for analysis involving longer
texts, also texts of a few hundred words and short- form messaging, such
as SMS text messages [TG, Section 3: 2]. Work funded by the UK security
services has supplemented work applicable to sociolinguistic profiling
[JG, Section 3: 3] through a concentration on identification of non-native
writers of English first language (Native Language Identification
or NLID) which research is being used to develop online monitoring systems
[Section 3: research grants].
2. Investigative interviews and the use of interpreters in legal
a) Primary research on manipulation by interviewers of rape-victim
witness-talk [NM, Section 3: 4], and on the interview as a speech event
and the evidential function of the interview [KH, Section 3: 5],
complements and extends understandings derived from psychological research
into the investigative interview, which tend to miss linguistic insights.
For example, we track the transformations and reformulation of interview
data as it passes from interview room to courtroom with conversions from
spoken to written modes and back to spoken. Discursive analysis of
interviews additionally reveals differences between interviewer and
interviewee in their orientation to the future evidential uses of the
data. Analysis of both the format and function of police-suspect
interviews exposes potential flaws in their use and interpretation as
evidence, especially given s.34 CJPOA 1994. Such research demonstrates how
distortions can be largely overcome through increased awareness of the
linguistic factors involved and this forms the basis of our police
b) Research shows the role of the interpreter in legal settings is rarely
acknowledged and poorly understood by interviewing officers [KK, Section3:
6]. As detailed in section 4, these insights have produced training for
interviewers and policy changes leading to improved practice.
References to the research
NLID 2010 - 2012 Grant, T & Kredens, K — Native Language
Identification Projects £162,840 for CFL contribution. MoD funded (in
collaboration with Qinetiq and Lexegesys).
 Coulthard, M. (2004) Author identification, idiolect and linguistic
uniqueness. Applied Linguistics 25(4): 431-447. DOI:
 Grant, T. (2013) TXT 4N6: Method, Consistency and Distinctiveness in
forensic analysis of SMS text messages. Journal of Law and Policy
 Grieve, J. (2012). A statistical analysis of regional variation in
adverb position in a corpus of written Standard American English. Corpus
Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 8: 39-72. DOI:
 MacLeod, N. (2011). `Risks and benefits of selective (re)presentation
of interviewees' talk: Some insights from discourse analysis'. British
Journal of Forensic Practice 13 (2): 95 - 102. DOI:
 Haworth, K. (2013) Audience design in the police interview: the
interactional and judicial consequences of audience orientation. Language
in Society 42(1). DOI: 10.1017/S0047404512000899
 Kredens, K., & Morris, R. (2010). Interpreting outside the
Courtroom. 'A shattered mirror ?' Interpreting in legal Contexts outside
the courtroom. In M. Coulthard & A. Johnson (eds.), pp. 169- 185.
These papers were all peer-reviewed before acceptance. Copies of all
publications are available upon request.
Details of the impact
CFL impact claimed here falls into two main areas — forensic casework and
improvement in police policy, training and practice in their investigative
1. Forensic casework:
Impact through casework: Reports for forensic investigations, and
provision of opinion and evidence for police investigations, criminal
trials and civil proceedings, have all contributed to verdicts of guilt or
innocence and to judgements in civil and appeal Courts.
MC, TG and NM are on the UK Serious and Organised Crime Agency Expert
Advisors' database and are regularly involved in casework on stalking,
sexual assault, murder and terrorism. This work involves analysis and
expert report writing, sometimes followed by appearances in Court [Section
5: 1, 2, 3, 8]. In addition CFL has provided evidence in civil cases
involving copyright infringement and unfair dismissal. We regularly
communicate to police and wider user groups through training events and
the media [Section 5: 8].
Our casework clearly has considerable significance for the victims of
crime, for the accused, and for those engaged in civil battles. Evidence
of impact can be found not only in guilty and innocent verdicts but also
in summings-up and judgements. In one case involving fraud and extortion
[R v Alder 2008 Peterborough Crown Court] the judge commented that "Dr
Grant, the linguist for the prosecution, provided convincing and measured
evidence [...] This evidence contributes considerably to the case against
Mr Alder" [Section 5: 2]. Further, in a murder case where an appeal
against conviction was lodged against the linguistic evidence provided by
Prof. Coulthard, the Court of Appeal upheld the evidence [Hodgson, D. v
 EWCA Crim (31 March 2009)] indicating that Prof Coulthard's
evidence was suitably cautious and, as appropriate, did not extend beyond
the research base [Section 5:3]. This judgement provides a significant
precedent for the continued acceptance of linguistic evidence in the
2. Policy development and training.
Impact through policy development and training: Research findings have
changed police practice in interviewing witnesses and suspects, and
specifically in cases where there is an interpreted interview. Changes to
Greater Manchester Police's (GMP) taking of non-native English speaker
witness statements represents a significant, concrete example.
Interpreter-mediated interviews are of specific interest to the UK police
[Section 3: 6] and, although interviewers report difficulty with these
interviews, national training structures do not address this problem. We
have delivered courses in Greater Manchester Police, Gwent Police, and
South Yorkshire Police (amongst other forces) to sensitise police officers
to the complex issues involved and offer advice to interviewers on how to
manage interpreter-mediated interaction [Section 5: 4, 8]. A good example
of policy development has been with Greater Manchester Police who changed
their processes and documentation for dealing with non-English speaking
witnesses when signing their English language witness statements [Section
Directly as a result of CFL research in police interviewing [Section 3:
4,5,6], CFL became a founding partner of the International
Investigative Interviewing Research Group (iIIRG) dedicated to
promoting interaction between police interviewers and researchers. Nearly
half of the 400 members of iIIRG are drawn from police forces from within
the UK and 23 other countries, creating a forum for reaching police
interviewers with the most relevant recent academic findings in the area.
TG gave the plenary address at the inaugural meeting of iIIRG in 2008, and
in 2009 CFL delivered the first iIIRG MasterClass for an international
group of police officers. This MasterClass fed back to police interviewers
our research findings on linguistic insights into investigative
interviewing such as those described above. Feedback from this
MasterClass, received from an FBI agent nearly two years after the event,
included the comment that "[the MasterClass] literally changed my life! Or
at least how I do my job! [...] I use what I gleaned from the MasterClass
all the time" [Section 5: 6].
CFL also draws on its research base to deliver bespoke courses with
either a general or specific purpose. General courses include the annual International
Summer School in Forensic Linguistic Analysis (ISSFLA) attended by
police and other practitioners and academics. The ISSFLA has led directly
to the propagation of forensic linguistic modules and programmes in
universities internationally, and has built links with professional units
in the German Federal Police, the FBI and UK police forces. One example of
more specific training is that provided on the West Midlands Police
On-line Undercover Policing Operations programme (run for groups of
experienced undercover officers three times a year since 2010). This
programme has changed the practice of officers engaged in undercover
online work [Section 5: 7, 8].
Sources to corroborate the impact
In providing evidence of impact we have avoided requesting references
specifically for the REF process. Rather we believe material provided
normally, as part of police quality control processes or as part of
collaborative projects gives a more credible review of our work.
- Reviews from SOCA. (Previously the database was run by the National
Police Improvement Agency, the NPIA, and so some reviews show their branding).
These reviews comprise investigating officers `responses to CFL case
work. After every case where we have been consulted, the investigating
officer is asked to review the contribution of the external advisor.
These reviews have not been solicited with a view to the REF process.
- Email from barrister about Alder case.
- Letter written by police officer praising MC's evidence at appeal
hearing (and criticising defence expert).
- Letter from the Senior Police Officer in charge of interviewer
training for the South and South West Policing Region. This letter was
not requested for the REF but was part of a grant bid. It reflects on
the importance of our work and its impact on police interviewing and
- Copy from Greater Manchester Police of their new policy and witness
statement form designed for non-English speaking witnesses.
- Email from FBI agent concerning MasterClass.
- Letter from the head of the West Midlands Police Tactical Intelligence
Development Unit on the contribution of our training to their
operational work. This letter was not requested for the REF but was part
of a grant bid for a collaborative project.
- See CFL website www.forensiclinguistics.net
for full list of past cases, training events and media work.