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right of silence

The right of someone charged with an offence or being tried on a criminal charge not to make any statement or give any evidence. When being questioned by police, the suspect normally has the right to keep quiet (see *caution), and his failure to answer cannot amount to obstructing the police. Sometimes, however, statute obliges him to answer. The owner of a vehicle, for example, must give information about who was driving it at the time of an alleged driving offence. At his trial, the accused has an absolute right not to give or call evidence or to submit to cross-examination (which might incriminate him). If he is then convicted, however, he cannot give evidence on appeal that he could have given at the trial. The prosecution is not allowed to comment on the silence of the accused (or his spouse), but the judge may comment on it in his summing-up to the jury providing that he does not suggest that the silence amounts to an admission of guilt.

The right to silence is often cited as a prime example of the fairness of the English criminal system, but it has also often been criticized as unduly hampering the conviction of criminals.

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