Reliability of evidence

Questions may arise about whether statements and confessions made by suspects are reliable. It is recognized that particular care should be exercised by the police in dealing with suspects who are psychologically vulnerable, and under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 police should ensure that juveniles and the mentally disordered should only be interviewed in the presence of an independent 'appropriate adult'. Nonetheless, it is clinically accepted that false confessions are sometimes made by suspects. This can arise from pressure of interrogation, or from psychological vulnerability, or a combination of both. Psychological vulnerability can arise from a range of factors including fear and anxiety, learning disability, drug withdrawal states, and psychiatric illness.

False confessions may be made voluntarily (for example motivated by guilt or a desire for notoriety), or, more commonly, they may arise in the context of coercion. When false confessions are made under coercion the individual may recognize he or she is making a false admission, but in some cases the individual may come to internalize the belief that he or she committed the alleged offence.

These issues are likely to require an assessment by a clinical psychologist with specialist expertise in this field. The assessments need to be comprehensive and may include standardized testing of the individual's interrogative suggestibility. (!8) Clinicians conducting these assessments will need to consider not only the clinical history and characteristics of the individual, but also the context of the police interview. This will often necessitate access to the audiotaped recordings.

It should be stressed that assessments of self-incriminating confessions do not enable conclusions to be drawn about the truth of the confessions, but only about their reliability. If there is good reason to doubt the reliability of a person's testimony this implies that the courts need to put weight on other evidence in determining guilt or innocence.

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