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In search of voices: Language barriers in the criminal justice system

In this guest blog, Gill Hunter, Researcher at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), discusses a new research project looking at how language barriers affect access to justice. 

For native English speakers, the complex legal and technical language used in our criminal justice system (CJS), especially in the criminal courts, can be opaque and confusing. In our recent research exploring what it means to participate effectively in court and tribunal hearings, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we interviewed justice professionals who described aspects of court practice and the language used in proceedings as ‘alien’, ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘archaic’ to the uninitiated, essentially suggesting that the criminal justice system often speaks ‘a different kind of English.’

So how bewildering then is our CJS for those who speak English as an additional language (EAL)? And what are the implications of this for their access to justice? These are questions the ICPR is addressing in research funded by The Bell Foundation, a charity which is seeking to reduce exclusion through language education. We are conducting this research in partnership with the charities Victim Support and the Centre for Justice Innovation. We are also being supported in the research by an advisory group, comprising individuals working in criminal justice agencies, government departments responsible for policy and practice and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The first stage was to ascertain what language assistance is available to those with EAL across the criminal justice system. We are trying to locate sources of data to estimate the number of people with EAL who are in contact with the CJS; a task which has highlighted the dearth of publicly available routine data on this issue. We have also been conducting interviews with those working in criminal justice agencies and in the NGO sector about how they identify and help those who have English as an additional language to better understand and navigate the system.

We know there are entitlements to language support at different stages of the criminal justice process. These include access to interpretation and translation to ensure understanding of legal rights, the reasons for arrest and detention, the charges being made and to safeguard the right to a fair trial, as codified under the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 6). Language support should also be available in prison to support equitable treatment and access to health and education services, and expectations about meeting the language needs of prisoners are set out and assessed by the Prison Inspectorate.

Preliminary findings from our qualitative interviews with practitioners highlight a context in which funding for interpretation is tight to non-existent; the availability and quality of interpreters can vary; there is a lack of training for practitioners on identifying language needs and working with interpreters; and the COVID-19 pandemic has added a further layer of complexity to the communication process, given the need for social distancing and movement away from the physical meeting to the virtual. Strategies to support those with EAL often depend on charity volunteers and helpful friends.

As a crucial part of our research, we want to hear directly from those with English as an additional language who have had experience of the criminal justice system as arrestees, defendants in court, prisoners, victims or witnesses. We are seeking information and feedback from anyone who might have a story to tell, or knows of others who do. Good, bad or indifferent, we would like to hear about how those with EAL have managed in the criminal justice system, specifically:

  • how well they understood the processes and procedures
  • whether they felt able to say when they had language difficulties
  • what language and other support they were offered – from public and voluntary sectors agencies – and their views on its value
  • and what improvements they would like to see.

Ultimately, our research is aiming to raise awareness of language barriers and their various effects; to promote knowledge of the rights and entitlements to language support within the criminal justice system; to share good practice where this exists; and to contribute to improved policy and practice in relation to the identification of language needs and support for those with EAL.

If you are able to assist this research by providing feedback on your own experiences, or by helping the research team contact people with EAL who have experiences of the criminal justice system, please contact: Gill Hunter, or Bina Bhardwa,

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