A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a Wednesday morning Senior Management meeting listening to Professor Malcolm Coulthard talk about the Centre for Forensic Linguistics’ remarkable achievements over the past 12 months. They were impressive to say the least, so I decided to pay a visit to the Centre to meet Professor Coulthard and Dr Tim Grant to find out more.
Aston’s Centre for Forensic Linguistics celebrated its first anniversary in May. The Centre is the first of its kind in the world and was conceived thanks to Malcolm’s research interests and the Vice Chancellor’s enthusiasm that these interests be encouraged through a specific research centre within the University.
The Centre has gone from strength to strength ever since, building a ‘nucleus of people’ who are renowned in their field. In the last year the Centre’s three permanent members of staff (Prof Coulthard, Dr Grant and Dr Krzystof Kredens) have done much to raise the profile of the Centre and also that of the University.
They are keen to build up their PhD students numbers and collectively they have registered five new Doctoral students this session. Research at the Centre involves all aspects of forensic linguistics from how the police and the courts can best work with interpreters to the refinement of methods for identifying the writer of disputed forensic texts. Indeed current PhD work includes research into problems of video mediated court cases, court interpreting in Hong Kong and how the interviewing of rape victims might be improved. This year the Centre also launched the world’s first Distance Masters in Forensic Linguistics.
Much of the Centre’s consultancy work involves acting as expert witnesses. In the last year they have been consulted in 21 cases, written reports in 18 of them, made two Crown Court appearances and had evidence used in court in their absence on three other occasions! A personal highlight of the year for Tim has been his court room appearances. As he says; ‘it doesn’t get much more applied than that!’
It’s not all case work though. The team is regularly called on to give training to Police Officers from all over the world. They have run courses forensic linguistic analysis and on how to improve interviewing techniques, especially when it is necessary to interview those whose first language isn’t English with the help of an interpreter.
The team is also in demand in other ways. The last year has seen them give plenary lectures at five international conferences in four countries and lecture on their research at 16 universities in four continents. Dr Grant also gave the ‘The Joseph Lister Award Lecture entitled ‘Txt crimes, sex crimes and murder: the science of forensic linguistics’ at the British Science Festival in September last year, an opportunity offered to just four outstanding under-40s academics each year.
All in all it is estimated that the work of the members of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics has attracted media publicity valued at over £500,000. Quite an achievement for a first years work!
Words by Louise Russell