New research reveals language barriers in the UK justice system

New UK-focused research funded by the Bell Foundation has examined the many language access issues faced by English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers when interacting with the UK criminal justice system (CJS).

The report, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, was a collaboration between the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, Victim Support and the Center for Justice Innovation.

The study delves into the inner workings of CJS, investigates the impact of ALS on access to justice and rehabilitation, and offers practical solutions to help people working in the justice system improve the way they interact with SLA speakers.

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To encompass political and national data, the researchers conducted interviews with practitioners from the statutory and voluntary sectors (i.e. CJS employees) as well as interpreters working across the justice system.

System issues

English as a second language speakers may be denied equitable outcomes in justice and face barriers and constraints in accessing services and support, including rehabilitation initiatives, the study found.

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Fundamentally, many CJS employees interviewed had never received training to support ESL speakers and were unaware of any relevant career guidance beyond how to book interpreters.

Interviewees also demonstrated gaps in understanding how interpreters work, including what “good interpreting practices” look like and how best to integrate interpreters into criminal justice processes.

The pandemic, along with various practical and financial factors, has also limited access to professional interpretation and translation, according to the study. “Less formal methods of meeting language support needs included the use of Google Translate, relying on the language skills of staff, volunteers, friends and family, and peer support.”

A problem concerning the systems for booking interpreters: CJS employees would not have been authorized to request the same interpreter several times. This undermined the consistency of interpretation, which is crucial for building trust and relationships. Respondents also reported that technical issues had impacted the quality of telephone interpreter (OPI) services.

Play with the system

The study also explored how the presence of an interpreter affected courtroom dynamics. It was of concern that the mere presence of an interpreter could create a negative perception of the accused or witness by court professionals and legal practitioners.

Negative perceptions included suspicions that defendants or witnesses were hiding something or playing with the system. Research has also shown that the presence of an interpreter sometimes causes irritation and/or causes delays or disruptions in CJS procedures.

According to the study, criminal justice practitioners sometimes feared that interpreters would paraphrase or summarize conversations. The CJS would have been uncertain or concerned about using professional interpreters, and researchers observed a preference for using non-specialist or untrained interpreters within the CJS itself to provide language services.

Additionally, the report revealed that the use of professional language services by the CJS is often presented as an additional cost on an overloaded system. This raised questions about declining standards of language support and triggered negative attitudes from the interpreting community about the conditions under which they were expected to work.

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Recommendations

To address the current gaps, the researchers identified five key action areas for CJS agencies.

  • Collect data to build understanding and raise awareness of language barriers in CJS;
  • Rights and prerogatives to linguistic support for ESL people;
  • Improving services and expanding access;
  • Empower practitioners to support service users;
  • Deploy innovative solutions.

Within these broad areas, some recommendations stood out; including encouraging CJS agencies to train frontline staff on the impact of language barriers, how to manage these issues, and training staff on how to communicate when there is no access to a professional interpreter . In addition, CJS agencies should have access to high-quality interpreting services, where interpreters are familiar with legal vocabulary and how the CJS works.

The UK criminal justice system currently allows the use of CJS-trained volunteers and friends and family for language support. However, this raised concerns about potential privacy breaches and the inappropriateness of passing personal information through an unknown person.