Legal interpreters: Lost in translation

Victims, witnesses, the police, barristers and judges need prompt, high-quality public service interpreting in court and police settings. The human costs are often overlooked and may be hard to quantify, but society and taxpayers pick up the tab for cancelled hearings, potential appeals and miscarriages of justice.

Dr Diana Singureanu

John Worne

It is time to re-evaluate the impact of more than a decade of outsourcing interpreting services in the legal sector and ask the hard question: how can we uphold the values of a civilised society and achieve genuine value for money for the taxpayer?

The 1950 Human Rights Convention established the right to interpretation, reinforced by the 2010 EU Directive. Post-Brexit, there is uncertainty regarding the UK’s obligation to comply with this directive. Nevertheless, historical precedents and the convention still frame expectations for UK interpretation rights.

In the past, UK interpreters had a good system for qualifying for and securing interpreting work for the police and the courts. However, in 2011 a combination of ideology and cuts led the Ministry of Justice to outsource court interpreting services. Outsourcing led to reduced rates for interpreters, more use of unqualified interpreters, and poorer work conditions against the backdrop of increased demand due to evolving migration patterns and socio-political changes.

Subcontracting agencies fail to attract the most experienced and professional interpreters. The process of securing professional legal interpreters, alongside disclosure of qualifications, is a thorny issue in the multilingual legal space, especially for interpreters arranged through agencies.

In court, the lack of qualified interpreters can result in miscommunication, misinformed pleas, subsequent appeals due to inadequate representation and even wrongful convictions or acquittals.

The scale of the problem is not well documented. Legal professionals cannot easily assess the quality of interpretation if they do not speak the other language. As such, they are often unaware of the need for continuous professional development (CPD), support and training, reducing the incentives for interpreters to stay in the profession.

Research shows that experienced court interpreters feel undervalued and are underpaid. They have to pay for CPD from their own pockets, so many may be untrained in new capabilities – for example, video-mediated interpretation (VMI). Although exposure to VMI during the pandemic will have mitigated this challenge to some extent, interpreters have had to learn the hard way how to cope with the complexities of VMI and the proliferation of hybrid configurations, and more complex legal proceedings being conducted remotely.

Remote interpreting offers solutions – indeed the only solution during the pandemic – to keep public services going and to reduce the backlog, but it also presents new challenges. Researchers have noted inconsistencies and limited guidelines in VMI in the UK and Europe.

Emerging technologies could offer further opportunities, but their integration into legal processes requires careful evaluation and collaboration with interpreting professionals and legal experts. In high-risk situations such as legal proceedings, improper use of machine translation (MT) can have severe consequences.

For example, in one case the court rejected the evidence because the search consent had been obtained using Google Translate, calling into question the legitimacy of this consent. There is concerning evidence that many legal professionals may not be fully aware of the risks of using MT.

In another frequently cited case, Vasquez v US, the defendant asked to withdraw his guilty plea, citing the inadequacy of the translation provided by his Spanish-speaking counsel. Ironically, the new counsel defended the plea withdrawal by mentioning having used Google Translate to check that poor translation. Instances such as this indicate a casual and risky approach to the use of MT in legal settings. They also raise the question of how widespread such practices may be in the UK.

Police and judicial authorities taking back control of interpreting provision – by playing a more active role in them – appears the obvious answer. UK police have shown the way with the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators Scheme and the Met Police’s engaged management of interpreting services.

However, at the heart of the matter is improving working conditions for court interpreters. This includes fair compensation, reasonable workloads and professional respect. These are essential for attracting and retaining skilled interpreters.

A diverse, expert and broadly representative working group, consisting of interpreting and translation associations and organisations, recently made 10 urgent recommendations to tackle these challenges and move towards creating a sustainable language services ecosystem for UK public services. The paper outlines the current situation, the evidence of the growing resource allocation issues, and the proposed solutions for improving procurement and provision of language services at policy, framework and contractual levels.

By addressing these issues – ensuring transparency in hiring, improving working conditions, and raising the awareness of the role of interpreters – there is a greater chance of maintaining and enhancing the fairness and integrity of the justice system.

For anyone familiar with these issues who sees them as a low priority, we would urge them to remember the boiling frog metaphor. If we do not start addressing the growing scale of the problem, we will have failed to act until it is too late.

An engaged, collaborative, hands-on, people-centred approach to assuring high-quality legal interpreting provision in a linguistically diverse society is the prerequisite to uphold justice.


Dr Diana Singureanu is a research fellow at the Centre for Translation Studies, University of Surrey, and a member of the Council of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. John Worne is chief executive of the CIL

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