‘What you’ve got is a right to silence’

paraphrasing the right to silence and the meaning of rights


  • Alex Bowen University of Melbourne




Communication of rights, Police interview, Paraphrase, discourse, Right to silence


In the Northern Territory of Australia (NT), it has long been recognised that the right to silence ‘caution’ is difficult to communicate, particularly with some Aboriginal suspects. This article reviews paraphrases used by NT police to explain the right, asking how they could be understood by Aboriginal people and offering initial conclusions about the meaning of paraphrases involving choice, rights and force. Meanwhile, the consequences of staying silent are consistently omitted from police paraphrases, highlighting that suspects must recover important meaning from context. This article argues that a significant source of contextual knowledge about the caution is discourses about rights, which are a complex and culture-specific way of thinking and talking. There is every risk that suspects without required contextual knowledge fail to obtain anything useful from many versions of the caution, a situation which likely entrenches disadvantage in the justice system. To communicate the caution across a large cultural gap requires specifying more meaning, but only policy-makers can decide what information the caution is supposed to communicate and what effect it is supposed to have. Evaluation of potential cautions should ask whether they are comprehensible, informative and credible and ultimately what effect they have for relevant audiences.

Author Biography

Alex Bowen, University of Melbourne

Alex Bowen is a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne, Australia. He has practised law in the Northern Territory and Victoria and aims to work with Aboriginal people to develop meaningful communication about law and justice.


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How to Cite

Bowen, A. . (2021). ‘What you’ve got is a right to silence’: paraphrasing the right to silence and the meaning of rights. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 28(1), 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1558/ijsll.18694