How many times have you watched a police interrogation on the TV and heard the words ‘No comment’? It’s usually when the suspect is ‘bang to rights’, after evidence has been unearthed that’s practically indisputable. When they’re cornered.
Anyone in this situation may think that, by saying nothing, they’re avoiding further incrimination. But answering ‘no comment’ may actually make their situation worse.
In TV world, suspects happily chat away to officers about what they’ve been up to before the scene cuts to a harrassed lawyer, climbing the steps two at a time, as they rush to the police station. And the first thing they’re seen to do is speak to their client alone, to give advice and counsel. Cue the scene of the next interview, and whatever the interrogating officer says, the answer is continually ‘no comment’.
That’s just the small screen’s interpretation of the interview process. Real life, says Richard Atkinson, chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, couldn’t be more different. ‘Solicitors don’t advise their clients to give ‘no comment’ responses as a matter of course. You have to assess all the factors at the police station, when deciding whether to advise a client to answer questions, to put in a prepared statement, or to give a no comment interview.’
We could all probably recite the disclaimer police officers give when arresting someone; for instance, does this sound familar? ‘You do not have to say anything if you do not wish to do so, but anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law.’
In 1994 this wording was subtly changed. The caution is now: ‘You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
Today, courts can use silence (or no comment answers) as an inference of guilt. This means that saying nothing, in some cases, can do more harm than good.
However, there are occasions when it’s good to stay schtum. Some people struggle to express themselves in the way they’d like, and can be easily miscontrued; others, despite having a good defence, may inadvertently incriminate themselves as a result of being in such a stressful situation. However calm and forgiving it may look on television, it’s understandably terrifying to be in such a position in real-life – even the most confident speaker could be at risk of uttering a word or phrase that carries alternative connotations to what they intended to imply.
Should anyone use ‘no comment’ (or opt for silence) when being formally questioned, the gravitas and intensity of the situation would be taken into account by a jury. However, suspects should also expect a grilling in court, regarding their reluctance to answer when they had the chance. Remembering crucial evidence many months later – as opposed to when everything is fresh in their minds – is likely to arouse suspicion, not douse it.
If you’re innocent, and have proof of this, there’s really no reason to give ‘no comment’ when interviewed; it’s common sense. But if you’re not innocent, or you have little evidence to prove you are, it seems uttering ‘no comment’ won’t necessarily save your skin. Ultimately, it just delays the inevitable…
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