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Minutes in Criminal Procedures: Writing Style Influences Judges

30.10.2014 - (idw) Universität Basel

The formal style of interrogation records influences the reception of judges and the decisions they take - even when the actual content is the same. This was shown in a large scale study conducted by the University of Basel in which 645 Swiss judges participated. So far, it had only been understood that minutes containing wrong or missing statements could provoke false rulings. Interrogation records have become ever more important in Swiss criminal procedures. At the end of 2013, criminologist and professor of law Nadja Capus together with sociologist lic. phil. Franziska Hohl Zürcher conducted a survey, where they presented judges with four in content identical records that differed only in style. The results show that judges perceived a suspect's statements to be less convincing and plausible when the interrogation questions were protocoled as having been confrontational using, for example, phrasing such as Do you accept these facts to be true? instead of What do you have to say about this?

The researches were surprised by the extent to how a confrontational interrogation style led the judges to doubt the proper execution of the interrogation. In their answers, they rated those interrogations as significantly less fair, less comprehensive and less competent than interrogations conducted in a more open style. State attorneys and police officers who portray themselves as hard and confrontational during interrogations should, according to this study, be careful: This approach could actually have the contrary effect and lead to their competence being questioned.

Effects on rulings

The study is part of the research project The Changing Face of Criminal Trial funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. According to the researchers, their results contribute to closing an important research gap: For what suspects and witnesses testify during interrogations is of great importance for the subsequent trial. In most cases, judges only get to read what the minutes state and never actually hear the witnesses speak.
In theory, judges do have the option to call witnesses to testify in court in order to get an authentic impression. However, this procedure is time consuming as well as expensive and is not favored by the Swiss Code of Criminal Procedure from 2011. Accordingly, the importance of written protocols over hearings has increased.

Interrogation records hardly regulated

The results also show that the recording of interrogations is only regulated rudimentary in Switzerland. Police officers and state attorneys decide autonomously on important questions that might affect judicial decisions significantly. Regulations are lacking for many aspects such as: Will all questions be put in the records or not? Will subsequent alterations or specifications made by the interrogated person be added to the document? Should emotions and non-verbal statements be noted as well?

Accompanying this study will be held an event on Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 5:15 PM at the Faculty of Law, University of Basel (Pro-Iure-Auditorium, Peter-Merian-Weg 8, Basel).

Original source
Nadja Capus, Franziska Hohl Zürcher, Richtertätigkeit vor dem Rechtsprechen: Das Lesen der Einvernahmeprotokolle. Resultate einer Befragung von Richterinnen und Richtern zu Einvernahmeprotokollen im Strafverfahren. In: «Plädoyer», Magazin für Recht und Politik, Heft 6/2014 (erscheint demnächst).

Further information
Prof. Dr. iur. Nadja Capus, Faculty of Law, University of Basel, phone: +41 (0)61 267 25 32, email:
lic. phil. Franziska Hohl Zürcher, Faculty of Law, University of Basel, phone: +41 (0)61 267 25 41, email: Weitere Informationen: - Project "Strafverfahren im Wandel/ Einvernahmeprotokolle" >
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