Current research

Current research

Exploring and improving young suspects’ understanding of their legal rights 

Funded by the Legal Education Foundation, 95 children and young people have been interviewed about their legal rights as suspects. This included vulnerable young people and those over-represented in the criminal justice system: young people in care, people with learning difficulties and/or mental health problems, and BAME individuals. The study highlights the current adult-centred approach adopted when dealing with children as suspects and the findings are intended to inform changes in policy and practice in requiring a child-centred system of justice.

Arising out of the interviews with children and young people, Vicky is working with Lesley Laver, a psychologist in designing an App to inform young suspects of their legal rights, test for understanding, and to screen for vulnerability. These digital resources will be co-designed by children and young people involved in the criminal justice system. 

Digital Legal Rights

Having undertaken research into police station legal advice for over 10 years, Vicky has found that suspects often have difficulties in understanding their legal rights, particularly the waiver of legal advice. It was when thinking about how technology could help that Vicky came up with the idea of developing an App through which to inform suspects about their legal rights. There are three main projects arising out of this research theme:

1. User-testing an App with detainees in police custody 

A prototype App was developed and this has been tested with 100 people detained in police custody in two large police stations. A number of issues were examined, including police decision-making and the processing of cases, access to legal advice, users’ perspectives of fairness in the criminal process, and the potential for technology to enhance procedural safeguards. The study raised a number of important issues concerning suspects' legal rights. These include difficulties for suspects in accessing legal advice; with no provision to facilitate a confidential telephone conversation between a solicitor and their client. There were also identified long delays, with the average length of detention being over 17 hours in both police stations – almost double the time identified in an earlier study. The findings are now available online: 

While the study has helped to highlight a number of important issues concerning suspects' legal rights, the digital resource was not user-friendly. This was because it had to contain a lot of information concerning the rights of detainees; including the booking in procedure, legal rights, police powers to conduct searches, the police interview and case outcomes. At this early stage, the information was text-based and, as such, it was not easy for people to navigate. Accordingly, the next stage will involve developing an App to assist suspects when being dealt with by the  police in voluntary interviews.

2. Setting up a website and mobile App 

There is very little information available to people informing them of their legal rights as suspects. In order to help in addressing this gap, Vicky has set up the website Know my Rights. This is the only website that informs suspects of their legal rights and assists them in searching for a publicly-funded defence lawyer. The next stage in this project will involve engaging with children and young people in designing a child-friendly website and mobile App. We anticipate that instead of being heavily text-based that this will include interactive videos. 

Based on the words spoken by children and young people in the Legal Education Foundation study, Vicky is arranging for students at the University of Nottingham to read out information about suspects legal rights. These will shortly be uploaded to the 'Know my Rights' website. 

3. Developing an App for Voluntary Police Interviews 

Vicky is currently working with the police in developing an App to be used by the police when dealing with suspects in voluntary interviews. This project will involve the police, defence lawyers and the Legal Aid Agency in adopting an iterative process of user-testing the App.    

 Effective Police Station Legal Advice 

Vicky received a small grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme to conduct a comparative study of police station legal advice in six countries. While Vicky was responsible for conducting research interviews (33 semi-structured interviews in total) with defence lawyers and legal aid officials in the UK and Ireland, she commissioned Dr Miet Vanderhallen and Enide Maegherman, from the University of Maastricht, to carry out this task in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

The same format has been adopted in each of the Country Reports. This includes exploring differences in the organisation and delivery of police station legal advice. It also includes examining different legal aid models to see how differences in approach can have implications for the quality and cost of police station work. Also explored with research participants was the extent to which technology can be used to help inform suspects of their legal rights and to help improve procedural safeguards. Four Country Report have been published and are available below: 

Country Report 1: Belgium - E. Maegherman and M. Vanderhallen

Country Report 2: England and Wales - V. Kemp  

Country Report 3: Ireland - V Kemp

Country Report 4: The Netherlands -  E. Maegherman and M. Vanderhallen  

Country Report 5: Northern Ireland - V Kemp

Country Report 6: Scotland - V. Kemp

A summary of some of the key issues arising is as follows:

  • Suspects have had a right to have a lawyer present in the police interview in England and Wales and Northern Ireland for 30 years, but this right has only recently been introduced in other EU jurisdictions.
  • It is only in England and Wales that non-solicitors can provide police station legal advice, but they have to be accredited to do so.
  • In some countries there is no other accreditation required other than being a solicitor, but this is changing with quality measures being introduced in most countries.
  • There are differences in the way that solicitors are paid for police station work but increasingly countries are turning to a system of fixed or block fees instead of paying for the time spent on cases.
  • In most jurisdictions, solicitors complain about the low level of remuneration for police station work and this is said to have a negative impact on the quality of legal advice.
  • The main factor found to undermine an active role for defence solicitors in the police station in all jurisdictions was the lack of meaningful disclosure provided by the police to the defence prior to the first interview.

It has only been possible in this comparative study to scratch the surface of what is happening in relation to police station legal advice in the six jurisdictions studied. It is recommended that further research is undertaken to explore the extent to which the early and active involvement of defence lawyers in the pre-charge process could help to achieve efficiencies and cost savings. By concentrating on the police interview, for example, this could help to avoid cases proceeding unnecessarily to court or, once at court, it could help to reduce the number of trials, or at least the number of issues to be dealt with at trial.