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Inequality Before the Law: Access to Justice for Deaf people

If you haven’t heard yet, how could you have not, the MoJ framework agreement for interpreting services is a disaster.
Anyone who wants to know more can read more on Linguist Lounge where there exists 27 pages (to date) of reports from spoken language interpreters, solicitors and other legal personnel.
If you want further evidence, a survey by Crime Line of its readers revealed some interesting data for the period Monday 12th – Friday 16th March. Of 403 responses received:
• In more than half of all cases no interpreter showed up
• In only 26% of cases did the interpreter appear as requested
• In 18% of cases the interpreter was late for the hearing
It’s harder to know what is happening with Sign Language interpreting under the contract but as ever Deaf people are losing out. Here follows some observations and reports of the situation so far.
The contract did not fully roll out until the 1st March even though the sub-contracted agency was claiming it had filled 97% of bookings. That’s because it didn’t have all of them yet.
There has been evidence from interpreters on the ground of the following:
Booking interpreters for part trials, something that erodes current best practice and makes interpreting much more difficult to do –
‘They wanted to book me for a 10 day court case with a few different co-interpreters so that they could all get experience of working with me. They didn’t even want to book me for the whole 10 days just the first week and days 9 and 10.’
No shows:
‘I turned up at a family court to interpret for the mother and her solicitor for a two day final hearing. The court had been unable to source the usual two court interpreters. I had to explain to the judge I could not interpret for the court and both parties due to impartiality and exhaustion. He was not happy but the case had to be adjourned.’
‘A booking went out on a Monday morning for two court interpreters for a five day trial starting immediately. It is impossible to organise that. The same booking went out later that week but for August. The case must have been adjourned.’
‘I turned up to interpret for the solicitor at a sentencing hearing. The court had not managed to book an interpreter. I had to interpret for both the solicitor and the court instead.’
Appropriately experienced interpreters. The danger of this contract is it stipulates a Registered Sign Language Interpreter. In theory any interpreter booked may fit that criteria but needn’t have any court experience or training. Two further anecdotes:
‘I turned up at court and the Deaf advocate had brought their own interpreter which was unusual. The week before the advocate had gone to court and neither they nor the Deaf defendant had understood the interpreters provided under this contract. When they found out I was an experienced court interpreter and not working under the contract they said they were relieved.’
‘I was working for a barrister at Crown Court. The Deaf defendant did not understand the two court interpreters. If I were not there to step in he just would not have understood anything.’
‘An interpreter I know who has just qualified is starting to do legal work. She can’t wait to get in a court room but she has absolutely no experience. I shudder to think what will happen and it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say this.’
The above incidences are undoubtedly the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Please do record any incidences you are aware of as a comment on this blog post.
The report Equality before the Law: Deaf People’s Access to Justice was published in 1997, 15 years ago. It was fundamental in ensuring Deaf people could access the justice system by setting out recommendations for courts and interpreters. The report was written after the infamous murder trial of Smith, Smith and Sams at the Old Bailey. After seven weeks a mistrial was declared due to a failure in interpreter provision. The report came at a time when a group of interpreters said they would do the trial under certain conditions thereby putting into practice the safeguards we have been used to since that time.
What we can is safely assume is that the best practice we have seen over the years has been eroded by this contract and that without those standards in place, the worst is yet to come.

  1. ‘Signs of Injustice’, Mary Brennan’s 1999 article based on her team’s research into court interpreting (and from which the above report derives) appears in the The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter 2(2), 2008, 101-26. It has that rare gift in academic writing that it is both accessible and well-referenced. 1997-2008-2012 – standards improve, standards deteriorate; how many steps back and how many steps forward?

  2. I just want to comment on one or two of the ‘quotes’ above.
    Firstly the 2 day court booking on the Monday.
    Originally I believe the court had requested two lip speakers it later transpired that the clients needed sign language interpreters. Clearly if interpreters had been requested at the time of booking they would have been sourced. This works the other way around of course, where i have turned up to appointments needing Lipspeakers and the court have requested interpreters! a waste of public money which ever way you look at it.
    The agency responsible for providing RSLI under the MOJ agreement, do not book interpreters for part trials. Nor do they use bookings as a training ground. Whilst I am not negating the request may have been made, this practice is not used by the agency in question and would only bring an interpreter in to a trial part way through if one of the team was ill.
    I would advocate that if anyone has had a problem understanding an interpreter, they should either inform the court or the agency providing the interpreter. Obviously the Deaf person’s understandings should be paramount, and bad practice does need to be eradicated. If people don’t complain those not up to the job will undoubtedly continue to work. As has been stated “any interpreter booked may fit that criteria ” but people have to have the conviction to make the complaint. ( no pun intended) .

    • Hi Karen. Can I just clarify.. Are you saying that the agency concerned never books interpreters to do part of a trial/ tribunal? That they always book a team who will all attend every day?

      • Hi Mo
        To my knowledge, it was brought up as bad practice and I was reassured that they would not do it and only use teams. I stand corrected if you have different information. Please lmk if this is still going on and I will raise the issue again.

    • Hi Karen
      Thanks for the response. The 2 day trial mentioned is not the same one in this blog post. In this case, the court had requested one interpreter for a two day trial. In fact none were provided.
      I understand Deaf people need to, on the whole, complain. As some of the most marginalised Deaf people are those that end up in the justice system, whether criminal, civil, family or otherwise, I would suggest many are not empowered to do so and the safeguards should be in place to stop a situation arising where a complaint is necessary.

  3. Karen – please declare if you are working for the said agency? The reason for this check is that it seem that you are defending this agency a wee bit too vigorously.
    I have come across deaf professionals who has determined that they will NEVER use this agency again after some shoddy interpreting work done by their in-house interpreters and/or freelancers booked by them.

    • Who I work for is of little consequence, many interpreters do work for Clarion on a freelance basis, I am merely supporting the professional interpreters that do provide an extremely good service to the Deaf community via Clarion. Most of these interpreters including myself also have worked for other agencies that previously provided interpretation for the legal system. I get peeved when these interpreters, including myself, are critisied, as we were dee,ed good enough when working for other agencies, but now are having our skills and professionalitiy questioned.

  4. There should be a follow-up to Brennan & Brown’s report! It is sad to see that it is a real mess at the moment.

Comments are closed.


  • Inequality before the Law? It’s Reality | Anonymous Interpreters 26th March 2012

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