Wednesday Webinar: Language barriers in the criminal justice system

Home > Wednesday Webinar: Language barriers in the criminal justice system

01 September 2022

In this webinar, we are joined by Emily Giles of The Bell Foundation and Gill Hunter of the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), to talk about language barriers in the criminal justice system.

Listen to the webinar recording

View the slides

The Bell Foundation recently funded a research series on the experiences and outcomes of the criminal justice system for people who speak English as a second or additional Language (ESL), conducted by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR).

The research aimed to:

  • enhance understanding of the nature and implications of language barriers;
  • raise awareness of their impact on access to justice;
  • identify areas for improvement in policy and practice;
  • support improvements through engaging with practitioners.


Rights, entitlements, and challenges

Gill explained that, although no robust data exists to assess the scale and range of language support needs in the criminal justice system, we know that a wide range of languages are spoken. ESL speakers have certain rights and entitlements to language support, but there are challenges in applying them.

Time and other resources are limited and there is a lack of information about language requirements.

We can’t spend a lot of time with the individual [no more than 10 minutes as Covid-19 prevention strategy]… So, we have an issue where sometimes we can’t deliver language support because of those [time] constraints. [Prison]

Staff receive little training and guidance on assessing language proficiency, working with interpreters, and responding to language and cultural barriers.

We don’t, as a service, have a standardised way to test the proficiency of someone’s English. Generally-speaking, it would be more of an informal way, so I would say, ‘Are you comfortable having your supervision in English?’ [Probation]

Information is usually only available in English, and if it is available in another language then it is often out of date.

The general information that we are putting out is changeable. So, every time that a policy changes, we have to go and change these documents again… So, we have to get it done via the translation service: Big Word do it. But the last, I think, I heard of it, [it was] about £10 a page… If you are thinking 35 languages, eight pages and that is just one document. Maybe 10, 15 documents to translate: you are into thousands. [Prison]


Access to justice and rehabilitation

Gill drew on lived experience and practitioner interviews to illustrate the impact of language barriers on access to justice and rehabilitation.

It is hard to put yourself in their position, but the best way to look at it is: What would it be like if you were in a foreign country, and you can’t speak the language? You can’t understand the officers. It becomes a barrier because there is massive risk of falling into an abyss, where they go into the background and they kind of disappear and you don’t see them, and they might get forgotten about. [Prison Officer]

In addition to a fear of being ‘forgotten’, interviewees spoke about how language services are organised by MoJ contracts in such a way that it is not possible to have a consistent interpreter, and therefore build a trusting relationship. Other limits to available support included accessing and understanding legal advice; interventions in the community; services in prison; and a lack of inclusion of English language education in rehabilitation and resettlement.

Gill noted that language needs often intersect with other vulnerabilities, such as immigration status, further reducing access to support.


Informal responses to language support needs

Research participants shared some of the ways in which they ‘get by’ without access to professional interpretation and translation. These include:

  • Google Translate;
  • Language skills of staff and volunteers, friends and family;
  • Reducing terminology and complex/technical vocabulary;
  • ‘Easy read’ and pictorial representation;
  • Peer support (formal and informal) – a ‘lifeline’ for ESL speakers in prison.

They also shared ways in which existing capacity could be developed:

  • Developing the ethnic and linguistic diversity of staff in the criminal justice system;
  • Targeted recruitment drives;
  • Volunteers recruited and employed.



Finally, Gill outlined the recommendations of the research series:

  • Collect data to build understanding of language barriers
  • Uphold rights and entitlements to language support
    i.e., training and guidance on rights and assessment of language proficiency; evaluation by inspectorates; senior accountability
  • Improve services and widen access
    i.e., translating and targeting information (including ‘easy read’ or pictorial); ESOL provision
  • Empower practitioners to support service users
    i.e., training and guidance on language barriers; supporting ESL speakers with and without formal language support
  • Deploy innovative solutions
    i.e., exploring how staff and volunteers might enhance language support; formalising peer support


Resources for practitioners

Emily then explained the ways in which the findings of the research series underpin The Bell Foundation’s Criminal Justice programme, and shared some of the resources developed in response to it:

  • A detailed breakdown of rights and entitlements
  • Good practice guidance for practitioners working with victims and witnesses of crime
  • Good practice guidance for Probation Service staff and interpreters

Helpful, pre-existing resources, include:

  • ESOL screening tool
  • In-cell worksheets
  • Improving language, improving lives: Resources for ESOL tutors

NB: To access these resources, you will need to register for a free account.

The Bell Foundation is keen to hear from practitioners who have suggestions for helpful resources. Please get in touch.

© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2024

whois: Andy White Freelance WordPress Developer London