We’ve had the pleasure of reading some fantastic student work over this assessment period. One of the stand out pieces for me was the following essay by first year student Stephanie Williams on the Forensic Linguistics module. It combines clarity of expression and well selected examples from the ongoing Grenfell Tower public inquiry to demonstrate the very different nature of questioning at inquiries. Well done to Steph!
This essay will consider how the language of a public inquiry differs from that found in the criminal court. It will briefly discuss the difference in function between the two, the adversarial nature of a criminal court leading to a conviction and the inquisitorial nature of the public inquiry leading to recommendations. Both criminal trials and public inquiries are goal orientated processes and for counsel to achieve those goals, different linguistic devices are used. Witness type and the aspect of blame will be considered, and how linguistic devices are used to apportion blame implicitly in a public inquiry. To illustrate these points, extracts from three testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry have been interrogated for recurrent patterns. However, it should be stated that findings are limited only to these extracts due to the length of the full testimonies which would be beyond the scope of this essay.
Public Inquiry vs. Criminal Trial
A public inquiry, convened by a government minister, is a quasi-judicial body set up to investigate an event that has caused public concern and is tasked with providing recommendations. They are established under the Inquiries Act (2005) and consist of a chair, panel, lead counsel, notice parties and witnesses. According to Beer (2010), the purpose of a public inquiry is to establish what happened, why it happened and what can be done to prevent it happening again. Beer (2010) also mentions that public inquiries are necessary to establish blame, however as argued by Murphy (2019), they are never explicitly tasked with finding blame, although blame is an expectation. The public inquiry is inquisitorial in nature and one counsel asks all questions to establish facts. This contrasts with the adversarial role of a criminal trial during which prosecution and defence counsel present their arguments. In a criminal trial the defendant is presumed to be innocent and the ‘burden of guilt’ (Lakoff 1986:99) rests with the prosecution, whilst the defence seeks to undermine this or cast reasonable doubt. Therefore, the aim of the criminal trial is to explicitly blame and convict.
Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry
The Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry was set up by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May on 15th June 2017. This is to investigate a fire in a newly refurbished 24 storey residential block in London, which occurred on 14 June 2017 and killed 72 people. The appointed chair is Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge. The inquiry is in two phases, the first of which has concluded with a report of findings published on 30 October 2019 and the second phase continues. The transcripts used in this essay are extracts from the first phase and include resident Hamid Wahbi (Appendix A), London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton (Appendix B) and Neil Crawford, contractor (Appendix C).
Type of questions used in a public inquiry
In a criminal trial lawyers use strategies to construct a narrative and control the witness. One strategy is the use of question types to elicit a particular response, as summed up by Archer (2005:85):
“The question-answer format places severe constraints on how a ‘conversation’ between a witness and a barrister can proceed…barristers want to elicit information that is strategically valuable, and so frame their questions in a way that might influence the response. Witnesses and defendants, on the other hand, can only answer the question that is posed, and they must do so directly”.
The reason for this is to influence the outcome of a criminal trial to enable a conviction. In contrast, the outcome of the public inquiry is to gather evidence and make recommendations. The use of open wh-questions and invitation questions in public enquiries allow the witness to explain what happened in their own words.
Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 33, line 13
Q: When you were holding the handle, was there anything happening with the window at that time?
However, there is still a degree of control exerted by counsel in the use of wh-questions that require a less open response. Woodbury (1984, cited by Archer 2005:79) argues that wh-questions should be classified into ‘broad, narrow and reduced’ depending on the ‘specificity’ of the answer required.
Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 34, line 8
Q: How far were you able to open the window?
Across all three extracts, a high number of closed yes/no questions have been used by counsel, however as opposed to a criminal trial, this type of question has been used as clarification of evidence from witness statements and maintain chronological order.
Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 37, line 17-21
Q. If we look at paragraph 53 now — and now we’re coming to the living room, Mr Wahbi — you say you left and went into the sitting room. Was that through the sliding doors that opened from the kitchen into the lounge?
In another example of the yes/no question, counsel is making the point that lessons were not learnt from previous fires. Luchjenbroers (1997) identifies this type of yes/no question as accusatory, more commonly found in a criminal trial.
Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 46, line 15-23
Q. Were you aware of the Shepherds Court fire on 19 August 2016?
A. I was aware of that, yes.
Q. Did you attend?
A. I didn’t.
Q. Were you aware of what lessons were learnt from that fire?
Tagged declarative questions are used in a criminal trial to coerce witnesses into following a narrative. The witness has a limited choice, either to agree or disagree with the proposition. They are not overly common in public inquiries because counsel is not building a narrative, however they are looking for culpability.
Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 46, line 7-9 (negative agreement tag)
Q. But you weren’t even in a position to make an assumption because you didn’t even know about those fires; is that fair?
Example: Neil Crawford, day 11, page 87, line 24-1 (positive agreement tag)
Q. That would include, wouldn’t it, insulation contained within the voids behind the heads, jambs and cills [sic] of the windows; yes?
Other question types, often found in criminal trials, are alternative questions which are adversarial in nature. These give the witness a finite number of answers to choose from and do not appear in the extracts here. There are also a limited number of declarative questions and in public inquiries these are mainly used to highlight parts of the written statements for clarification. In a criminal trial, this question type is used to construct a narrative by ensuring the witness can only answer with a limited response.
Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 45, line 13-14
Q. You didn’t take any comfort, then, from the failure of re-entry at the Dubai fire?
Witness type and blame
Questions and other metadiscursive features depend on the witness type and whether counsel is sympathetic or alluding to culpability. This is comparable with the questioning of friendly and unfriendly witnesses in a criminal trial. Luchjenbroers’ (1997:492) states her analysis “revealed a general barrister strategy of directing a higher proportion of interrogatives and a lower proportion of declarative forms to sympathetic witnesses than to hostile witnesses” In the Hamid Wahbi testimony, counsel uses a range of wh-question types and yes/no questions to confirm and elaborate his statement and this is apparent in the responses. However, control is also noted in the form of discourse markers ‘and’ and ‘so’ to move the witness in a given direction. Sympathy is shown in the regular use of the words ‘can you remember’.
In the testimonies of Dany Cotton and Neil Crawford, although a high number of interrogatives are used, we can see declarative tag questions appear to control responses. However, they can expand their answers in response to ‘proper’ questioning by counsel often apparent in public inquiries in blameable matters. Blame is also implied in the use of negative wh-questioning resulting in a defensive response.
Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 51, line 21-25
Q. We’ve been told by senior officers, I think as late as this week, that an operational firefighter would always expect the unexpected. Was this not the unexpected which you should be expecting?
A. I don’t think that’s a reasonable thing to say […]
Blame is also suggested in Dany Cotton’s testimony using expressions such as ‘failure’ and ‘negligible‘. Murphy (2019: 179) states these are “a cluster of lexical items which are utilised by the inquiry chair to highlight the negative actions which are blameable…the ‘lexical field of blame” Therefore although explicit blame is not a feature of a public inquiry as it is in the criminal court, it is implied through lexical choices.
This essay has discussed the role of different question types and other linguistic devices in a public enquiry and how they compare with those in a criminal trial. We can see from the three extracts that a high number of yes/no interrogatives have been used to clarify and expand points from the written statements and maintain chronological order. Interrogatives are used in the criminal courtroom for a different reason, primarily to lead the witness through a narrative construction in order to gain a conviction. Some open wh-questions appear in the extracts to allow the witness to elaborate, but very few. Open wh-questioning is minimal in the criminal trial to avoid deviation from the narrative. However, there are forms of questioning used in these public inquiry extracts that are found in a criminal court, accusatory yes/no questions and tagged declarative questions. These have been used in the public inquiry context in addition to ‘proper questions’ to implicitly suggest blame. Therefore, although the nature of a public inquiry is inquisitorial, some culpability must be found in order to make recommendations and castigate those responsible which is why some forms of questioning may be like those used in a criminal trial where the goal is to find blame.
Stephanie Williams, Year 1 English Language and Linguistics