Interpreting in the Criminal Justice System: the row over qualifications

Currently, minimum qualification requirements needed to be an interpreter in court differ from those needed to interpret for the police.

Interpreters are a vital part of the Criminal Justice System, and a defendant’s right to have an interpreter is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2000, seven-year-old Victoria Climbié, from the Cote d’Ivoire had been interviewed by police and social services prior to her death. Language mediation was frequently provided by a member of her family who was later found to be jointly responsible for her death.

Similarly, with the death of five-year-old Daniel Pelka in March 2021, family members and perpetrators of the crime had been the ones to mediate between the victim and public services, with the victim’s first language being Polish.

Both cases underlined the importance of having professional interpreters available within the Criminal Justice System. 

According to research conducted by charity Victim Support in March, there is no centralised data on the first languages of those in prison or on probation. However, as of June 2021, foreign nationals represented 13 per cent of the UK prison population. There are estimated to be more than 300 languages spoken in London.

The National Register for Public Service Interpretation (NRPSI) is a not-for-profit organisation which came about in the early 1990s when an untrained interpreter was assigned to a murder trial but was not able to speak the dialect of the accused.

The 1993 Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice made a recommendation for a national register of CJS interpreters which would verify competence and skills. Additionally a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) was established.

The National Agreement on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters, Translators and Language Service Professionals in Investigations and Proceedings within the Criminal Justice System specified that interpreters should be sourced from the NRPSI.

In 2012, the MoJ began to outsource interpretation services to ALS (now Capita) and that requirement was dropped.

A study completed last month by Victim Support, focused on language services for victims and witnesses, found that frontline CJS professionals acknowledged language support was “patchy” and that the CPS has no centralised record of its use of interpretation and translation.

It also concluded that professional interpreters who are hired were not always specialised in the language of the CJS, which includes specific terminology and 'legalise' which requires specific language skills and training.

NRPSI director and English-Portuguese interpreter within the CJS for more than 25 years, Eulalia Pessoa-White, shared her concerns with Police Oracle about the requirements set for interpreters working within the courts.

“The highest standards of interpreting are required to protect the integrity of this vital system as well as the public it serves," she says.

“Neither the courts nor the police can do their jobs effectively and engage with witnesses, defendants, or victims for whom English is not their first language without the input of such sufficiently skilled professional interpreters.

“NRPSI believes that only registered and regulated public service interpreters with a level 6 qualification (DPSI in law or equivalent), the necessary experience, security vetting and commitment to their Code of Professional Conduct should be engaged to work within the criminal justice system.”

Today, registration with NRPSI requires a specific interpreting qualification (most commonly a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting [DPSI]- a Level 6 language qualification) in the two languages interpreters work between. To achieve a ‘Full status’ interpreters must also have more than 400 hours of experience.

The Police-Approved Interpreter and Translation scheme also requires a level 6 diploma as a minimum.

The MoJ no longer requires an interpreter to be registered on the NRPSI and it is only for the highest complexity assignments that they require comparable criteria to the NRPSI. They accept interpreters with a range of qualifications and experience levels, in part dependant on the complexity of the assignment they would be dealing with.

The two contracted service providers for interpreters within courts and tribunals are thebigword and Clarion interpreting. All interpreters must have 100 hours of experience and complete a justice system-specific training course, which takes approximately four hours.

Last year, Chris Philp, Conservative MP for Croydon South, told Parliament that the MoJ accepts a range of qualifications including a Level 1 foundation in public service interpreting (a two-four week course) or level three and level four community service interpreting qualifications (A-Level standard), as long as other requirements are met – requirements which were dependent upon the complexity of the booking.

MP Philp said that the MoJ does not hold statistics on the number of interpreters who hold a Level 6 public service qualification and who have more than 400 hours experience “as there is no requirement to do so within the contract.”

In November of last year, Baroness Coussins, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, expressed her concerns about the level of qualification requirements for those working in courts and tribunals. She put forward an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to establish in law minimum requirements for interpreters in those settings.

The amendment was debated and then withdrawn in favour of an inquiry into qualifications put forward by Lord Wolfson.

Within the withdrawn amendment, Baroness Coussins had proposed a move back to the requirement of every interpreter being on the NRPSI.  

Baroness Coussins had said this would standardise minimum requirements - in line with the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.

Lord Wolfson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice had said : “We are concerned not to have a one-size-fits-all approach; even within a court setting, interpreting in a criminal court is quite different from interpreting, for example, in the family jurisdiction. It is not only court settings; there is telephone interpreting for court custody officers, and service centres require interpreting assistance to support court users paying fines or responding to general inquiries.”

He instead, committed earlier this year to commissioning a review of the MoJ's language services provision which would include looking at experience levels and rare language requirements. It will be completed prior to new contracts being established in 2023.

A HMCTS spokesperson said: “We have clear rules designed around the courts system to ensure interpreters possess the skills, qualifications and experience needed to maintain access to justice for all.”

They also told Police Oracle that they meet regularly with membership bodies and representatives of the interpreter community to stay informed on concerns.

They explained that the qualifications and experience required will depend on the complexity of the assignment, with the highest complexity level having criteria comparable to those set by the NRPSI.

With contracts due to expire in October 2023, they are already considering how the service can be improved, including qualification standards.

They report fewer than 1 per cent of complaints since the current contracts were established.

“We welcome Lord Wolfson's commitment earlier this year to commissioning a review of the MoJ's language services provision. Nonetheless, such a review will realistically take time.

“The fight for only qualified, vetted and accountable professional interpreters to be used by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) therefore continues,” Ms Pessoa-White said.