Professor Tim Grant - Forensic Linguistics

Tim Grant, Professor of Forensic Linguistics at the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, writes about his experience of contributing to a POSTnote and assisting in the formulation of a Private Members' Bill.

"My work as an academic and practitioner in forensic linguistics frequently brings me into contact with different arms of government, most notably with the police and Home Office and so I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to the Parliamentary Estate and Whitehall, but until 2015 I’d had little experience with the offices of Parliament itself.

In 2015 the Centre for Forensic Linguistics was approached by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), who were conducting research to write a POSTnote for MPs and Peers about Forensic Language Analysis. 

Following a couple of phone conversations and emails with Dr Sarah Foxen, the POST adviser researching the briefing, Sarah came to the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, where she met with myself and colleagues to discuss research, evidence and issues pertinent to the briefing, as well as the broad range of tasks we undertook as forensic linguists. Her final POSTnote considered textual forensic linguistics and forensic speech science, taking in authorship analysis work for intelligence and for the Courts, analysis of meaning and corpus linguistics, speaker analysis and transcription tasks as well as language analysis for the determination of origin of asylum seekers – and all in just four sides!

One of the points of discussion during the research and writing of the POSTnote was that of quality assurance and regulation of forensic linguistics. Much textual forensic linguistic evidence, such as how we determine the meaning of otherwise unknown slang terms, really isn’t science-y enough to fall under the remit of the forensic science regulator and this creates a quality assurance problem for the discipline. 

This issue was highlighted in the POSTnote and subsequently the cause was taken up by Roger Mullin MP, who proposed a Ten Minute Rule Bill, the Forensic Linguistics (Standards) Bill. During the first reading of the Bill, Roger Mullin named-checked both the Centre for Forensic Linguistics and myself on the floor of the House. I’d assisted in putting together the Bill – briefing Roger Mullin’s researcher and working with them on the issue to give it more publicity. This was a fascinating process to be involved in as the subtleties of academic positions became translated into political realities. The Ten Minute Rule Bill was never going to become law, but by raising the issues in the form of the Bill it was hoped to raise both the specific problem of regulation in forensic linguistics and also the profile and possibilities of forensic linguistics more generally.

Progress has been made in the regulation of forensic speech science and forensic speech and audio labs are able to apply for accreditation with the Office of the Forensic Regulator.  Eighteen months since the Ten Minute Rule Bill textual forensic linguistics is still unregulated, but watch this space…"