A quick chat with the police – or an interview? You need a lawyer

When the police investigate a criminal offence, it may not be necessary to formally arrest a suspect. In the past, it would be common practice that those being questioned by the police were arrested. Now, with the introduction of the 28-day bail limit, it is becoming a more accepted method for the police to question suspects by way of a ‘voluntary interview’.

The Telegraph recently reported that despite a rise in crime, police are arresting half as many people as they did decades ago. It is clear that crime is being investigated, however, this may not be by the well-known method of arresting a suspect.

It is now common for the police to ask a suspect to attend the police station voluntarily, rather than make a formal arrest. This may come by way of a request from the police asking for a ‘quick chat’. In these circumstances, the suspect may voluntarily attend the police station or another venue, such as the scene of the crime or even the suspect’s home address, to assist the police with their enquiries.

The benefit of a voluntary interview is that you can negotiate a mutually convenient venue, date and time with the officer, and there will be no delays, particularly if you instruct a solicitor beforehand. However, there can be disadvantages for those who are unsure of exactly what being a volunteer entails.

Under the Police and Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, the suspect is entitled to leave at any time unless placed under arrest, and shall be informed once they are under arrest if a decision is taken by a constable to prevent them from leaving. All suspects who are interviewed, whether arrested or voluntary, are entitled to free and independent legal advice. Voluntary interviews should not be at the expense of legal advice.

Understandably, particularly if they are sitting in their own home, a volunteer may not feel that the interview is too serious and that the police are simply investigating, rather than questioning them as a suspect. For this reason, they may also be reluctant to obtain legal advice. By being asked to participate in a voluntarily interview, suspects should be under no illusion that the matter is less serious or informal. The legal status of a voluntary interview is the same as if the suspect had been arrested. If the matter progresses to Court, the interview can, of course, be used in evidence.

Whilst the choice is that of the suspect whether they wish to exercise their rights, it is of upmost importance that they are advised of those rights. As in any interview, advice from a solicitor is always advised. It is completely free for anyone who is questioned by the police. It is vital that the suspect is aware of their options in interview and possible outcomes, such as a charge.

Yesterday, a government consultation closed. The consultation related to Codes C, E, F and H which refer to detention, treatment and questioning of persons detained, and audio and visual recording of interviews. Under Code C, the proposals are that for voluntary suspect interviews, the police should set out in full the rights, entitlements and safeguards that apply and the procedure to be followed when arranging for the interview to take place.

Any PACE developments whereby safeguards are put in place to ensure that suspects are more informed of their rights are welcomed. It is vital that suspects, no matter whether arrested or attending an interview as a volunteer, should seek free and independent legal advice.

The changes would take account of concerns that suspects might not realise that a voluntary interview is just as serious and important as being interviewed after arrest. This applies particularly when the interview takes place in the suspect’s own home rather than at a police station. The approach mirrors that which is applied to detained suspects on arrival at the police station. In particular, it requires the suspect to be informed of all the rights, entitlements and safeguards that will apply before they are asked to consent to the interview and to be given a notice to explain those matters.

Profile photo of Gemma Blythe About Gemma Blythe
Gemma is a caseworker at the criminal defence firm Tuckers

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