Individuals are falling victim to a legal loophole which allows them to be interviewed by police in their own home about potentially serious offences in the belief that they are simply having a chat.
A growing trend is seeing people being asked to participate in voluntary interviews at home, a place of work, or a police station, without a clear understanding that the conversation can be used to build a case against them and could adversely affect a suspect’s defence.
Budget cuts, low staffing levels and custody suite closures have all contributed to the rise of voluntary interview requests. It is becoming increasingly common for the police to invite individuals to have a friendly chat, whether at the police station, in their own home, or elsewhere, about allegations. But despite the fact that anyone having a ‘chat’ with a police officer should be cautioned, not everyone realises that whatever is said in a voluntary interview can be used in evidence if the case proceeds to court.
If conducted in a person’s home, the interview won’t necessarily be recorded, but the Police may decide to take ‘contemporaneous notes’ instead, which the person being interviewed will be asked to read and sign.
The legal sector has long voiced its concerns in industry circles over the increasing move towards voluntary interviews rather than the traditional arrest and interview at the police station.
Squeezed policing budgets have led to voluntary interviews – which require less staff resource and cell space than holding an individual under arrest - taking on a greater prominence as a more cost-effective alternative.
However, many people don’t understand the repercussions of what can appear to be an informal chat and may answer questions less thoughtfully while in the comfort of their own home.
Often people will attend a voluntary interview and speak freely with the police without obtaining free legal advice, safe in the knowledge of their innocence. However, even those who don’t believe they have committed a crime can land themselves in hot water without seeking specialist legal advice.
Some people may remember a case earlier this year of a woman who was identified via CCTV of picking up a £20 note that she had found on a display in a shop and asked to attend a voluntary interview.
During the interview, which she attended without a solicitor, she denied taking the money; a move which led to the case proceeding to court where she received a conditional discharge, court costs and a criminal record for a dishonest offence.
Had the woman asked for legal representation at the outset, she would have been properly guided through the interview process and the outcome would probably have been a caution at the police station rather than a court hearing.
Her case provides a clear example of how seeking legal advice from the outset can help to manage any potential complexities if matters escalate.
Voluntary interviews – key points to know:
1) No matter how relaxed an invite to a voluntary interview might seem, individuals must still be cautioned, informed that they are not under arrest, are entitled to free legal representation, and may leave at any time;
2) That said, depending on how the conversation develops, an arrest may follow;
3) On being invited for a voluntary interview, the person concerned should contact a solicitor – no matter how inconvenient it appears to be for the police officer. Solicitors can obtain disclosure from the police before their client is interviewed, so are usually aware of the strength of the evidence in the case and can advise their client accordingly;
4) If an individual refuses to attend a voluntary interview, they may then be arrested and interviewed anyway;
5) A child or vulnerable adult should never be interviewed without an appropriate adult present; a parent, guardian, social worker, or a responsible adult over the age of 18.