June 27, 2022

Tackling Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System

Gill Hunter & Suzanne Smith
Gill is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London
Suzanne is an Innovative Practice Officer at the Centre for Justice Innovation

In this guest blog Gill Hunter from the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICJPR) & Suzanne Smith from the Centre for Justice Innovation highlight how best to support both people in the Criminal Justice System who speak English as a second or additional language and the practitioners on the frontline assisting them.

Language barriers can have a substantial impact on individuals’ interactions with the criminal justice system. However, there is limited research on this issue and a lack of practical guidance to support practitioners working with individuals who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL). A new wide-ranging research and practice series, Language barriers in the criminal justice system, from the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, Birkbeck, Victim Support, and the Centre for Justice Innovation, funded by The Bell Foundation, has  explored this topic to gain a greater understanding of the impact of speaking ESL on individuals’ experiences of the justice system, whether as victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, or people in prison/under supervusion. This work also highlights the challenges posed for criminal justice practitioners when working with individuals who speak ESL. Here, we summarise some key research findings, and provide an overview of the good practice guidance for practitioners working through interpreters.

The research

This was a small-scale, exploratory project. We reviewed legal rights and entitlements to language support (mainly access to professional interpretation and translation). We interviewed 63 practitioners working in statutory and voluntary sector criminal justice agencies, largely in two geographic areas in England, and we interviewed and received written feedback from 26 individuals about the lived experience of ESL speakers in the criminal justice system.

In brief, the findings were:

  • Practitioners were mostly aware of rights and entitlements to interpretation and translation for speakers of ESL, but access was influenced by a number of factors, including time and resource pressures.
  • Information about an individual’s language needs was not always shared across agencies.
  • ‘Professional judgement’ was commonly used to assess whether someone required an interpreter or could ‘manage’ in English but there was no standard approach or guidance about the level of English language proficiency that might be needed to participate effectively in criminal justice processes.
  • Most interviewees had never received training about supporting speakers of ESL and were unaware of any specific professional guidance on this, beyond how to book interpreters.
  • Interview accounts highlighted gaps in understanding among some criminal justice practitioners about how interpreters work, including in relation to what ‘good interpreting practice’ looks like and how best to accommodate interpreters in criminal justice processes. Similarly, interpreters' expectations – that criminal justice practitioners should facilitate their work though things like advance briefings about likely content of discussions, were not always met.
  • Criminal justice services were considered to be largely monolingual. The perceived lack of written materials and web-based content providing service information and advice in languages other than English (aside from Welsh) was mentioned as a barrier to engagement. It also limited access to rehabilitative interventions.
  • Language needs often intersected with other vulnerabilities, including having legally insecure and ‘unsettled’ immigration status and this limited what intervention and support could be offered.

Guidance for criminal justice practitioners

In response to research findings, a guidance tool was developed to support practitioners to communicate more effectively with individuals who speak ESL. This focuses on good practice when using an interpreter to work with individuals who speak ESL. The guidance was developed in consultation with probation practitioners and interpreters and aims to provide guidance to probation officers for working with interpreters, both in court and in community settings.

Working with individuals resettling in the community

The guidance includes pointers for practitioners to support effective communication from the initial point of contact with people resettling in the community through to supervision appointments using an interpreter. These include recommending that questions about their preferred verbal and written languages are incorporated into initial assessments to help identify language support needs at an early stage. If staff are unsure whether an interpreter is required, they should always check with the indivdual. Some may present as proficient speakers of English, but they may find it difficult to understand the complex language and legal jargon commonly used in the criminal justice system and in documents such as court orders and licence conditions.

Although it is recommended that all efforts be made to ensure that an interpreter is present for most, if not all, communications between probation and people resettling in the community with identified language support needs, this is not always possible as not all contact is pre-planned. Therefore, the guidance includes advice on effective communication when an interpreter is not present, including the importance of using plain English without colloquialisms, using translated materials and pictorial resources where possible, and checking understanding regularly. Practitioners are advised to avoid using friends or family members of a person being resettled to support with interpretation as there is no guarantee that the information will be translated correctly or treated sensitively and confidentially.

Where an interpreter is present, the document offers tips for aiding effective communication between the practitioner, the individual and the interpreter before, during and at the end of a probation appointment. Some examples of good practice outlined in the guidance include preparing the interpreter ahead of the meeting for discussions about sensitive and distressing topics, using clear and concise language and providing full explanations of any complex terminology used, and using short answers, yes/no or closed questions to regularly check understanding. Finally, the guidance outlines how gathering feedback on the session from the individual and interpreter can help to develop relationships and improve the effectiveness of future appointments. The guidance also includes a help-sheet, which can be translated and given to the person or read by the interpreter at the start of the meeting, and provides the individual with some information about how the appointment will run and what to expect of the interpreter, to help the session to run smoothly.

These are just a few examples of the advice provided in the guidance, which aims to support practitioners who want to better address the needs of people with English as a second or additional language . For more information and to view the whole series, please go to https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/criminal-justice-programme/language-change-programme/

If you would like to discuss the research in more detail, please contact Gill at g.hunter@bbk.ac.uk, or if you have suggestions for how we can further improve practice for working with individuals who speak English as a second or additional language, please get in touch with Suzanne at ssmith@justiceinnovation.org

Gill Hunter is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, Birkbeck. ICPR undertakes academically-grounded, policy-orientated research on justice. The research is informed by concerns with justice and fairness and a commitment to bringing about improvements in justice policy and practice. Gill’s research interests focus on lay experiences and understandings of the criminal justice system and perceptions about access to justice across the court and tribunals system.  

Suzanne's role as Innovative Practice Officer at the Centre for Justice Innovation involves working directly with frontline practitioners and supporting them to develop and implement new and improved ways of working, as well as identifying and sharing best practice. This includes bringing practitioners together at multi-agency workshops and providing a range of practical tools to assist with the implementation of new initiatives. Previously, Suzanne worked as a frontline practitioner having worked in both the male and female prison estates and in youth justice, working with children involved in or at risk of involvement in the criminal justice system

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