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The fabric of law-in-action: ‘formulating’ the suspect’s account during police interviews in England

Issue: Vol 27 No. 1 (2020)

Journal: International Journal of Speech Language and the Law

Subject Areas: Linguistics

DOI: 10.1558/ijsll.38527


This article reports findings from a study of police interviews of people suspected of having committed relatively minor criminal offences, in a police station in England. The data comprise audio-recorded investigative interviews which were analysed using conversation analysis. It is focused on a communicative practice employed by police officers while questioning suspects. This practice is to ‘formulate’ what the suspect has just said; formulations are a means of summarising the suspect’s evidence in a particular phase of questioning, in such a way as to represent the suspect’s own words. Formulations, as a practice in talk-in-interaction, enable police officers to a) summarise the upshot of what a suspect has said during a period or phase of questioning, b) attribute this summary directly to a suspect’s ‘own words’, c) construct a suspect’s account (confirmation) as legally relevant, and which can d) elicit from the suspect a form of admission. Formulations are employed as a mechanism to rework prior descriptions and utterances by transforming and elaborating them and consolidating their legal relevance. Through this practice, police officers manage to attribute legal labels to what suspects have said during the interview, to their evidence (e.g. as denying, admitting, telling, etc.) as well as to the character of the incidents or events in question (e.g. assault, breach of harassment warning, criminal damage, arson). Formulating, therefore, is an interactional practice through which key legal work is accomplished in police interviews with suspects in England. It is a device that constitutes the fabric of law-in-action.

Author: Fabio Ferraz de Almeida, Paul Drew

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