How Silent is the Right to Silence?

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Katherine Biber


A long-held and fundamental principle of our criminal justice system is that people accused of crimes have a right to silence, arising from the presumption of innocence. Rules of evidence try to protect this ‘right’ during trial, by ensuring that juries understand that adverse inferences cannot be drawn from the silence of the accused. Silence, in court, can mean nothing, and we are not to speculate about what might motivate an accused person to remain silent, or what they might have said had they spoken.

However, an examination of the jurisprudence in this area shows that the law is often not dealing with actual silence; sometimes when the law refers to the ‘right to silence’, it seems to mean a ‘refusal to hear’. In other instances, there is actual silence, and yet the law refuses to subject that silence to any critical interpretation, insisting that we cannot infer anything from it. While we have learned, from theatre, music, linguistics, religion and psychology, to develop sophisticated means for interpreting silence, the law demands that we set aside these interpretive tools, hearing silence that isn’t there, and inferring nothing about something.

Article Details

On Noise (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Katherine Biber, University of Technology, Sydney

Katherine Biber is an associate professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney. She is author of Captive Images: Race, Crime, Photography (2007), co-editor of The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory (2009) with Deborah Staines and Michelle Arrow, and publishes in the areas of evidence, visual culture and criminal procedure.