New ISO Standard on Legal Interpreting Seeks to Combat ‘De-Professionalism’

ISO Legal Interpreting Standard

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the body in charge of developing and publishing international standards, has published a new standard on legal interpreting.

The responsibility for standards related to language services belongs to a dedicated unit of the ISO. The Translation, Interpreting and Related Technology Technical Committee (ISO/TC 37/SC 5) is made up of four different working groups: terminology coordination, translation, interpreting, and facilities and equipment for interpreting services.

Including updated versions, there are currently 13 published standards under the direct responsibility of the Translation, Interpreting and Related Technology Technical Committee and a further six standards under development.

Standards related to the language industry cover a broad spectrum, from providing translation services (ISO 17100:2015) to working with XLIFF files (ISO 21720:2017) and conference equipment (ISO 22259:2019).

ISO certification is a way to demonstrate adherence to a set of guidelines and companies may choose to reference specific ISO codes in RFPs and customer proposals as a way to bolster claims about the quality of their service. Language service providers (LSPs) and others who have achieved ISO certification may also choose to display ISO codes as a badge of honor on their websites.

The recently published standard for legal interpreting services (ISO 20228:2019) was introduced in April 2019. According to the standard, “it is applicable to all parties involved in facilitating communication between users of legal services using a spoken or signed language” — meaning, it applies to interpreters, LSPs, and other intermediaries.

The standard was developed after the Technical Committee saw the need to ensure and standardize the quality of legal interpreting services. The Committee deemed standardization important as a matter of “equal access to justice…as well as fair trials” and “equal access to the law,” the standard reads.

“Current trends in several countries go in the direction of de-professionalism due to shortage of financial means, absence of specialized training and lack of awareness of the risks of using non-professional legal interpreters” — ISO 20228:2019

The document recognizes that there are already “various codes and standards (protocols) for specific settings,” but points out that training and practices vary greatly between countries and are, in many cases, not formalized or fixed.

Moreover, the standard highlights the fact that “current trends in several countries go in the direction of de-professionalism due to shortage of financial means, absence of specialized training and lack of awareness of the risks of using non-professional legal interpreters.” In publishing the legal interpreting standard, the Technical Committee hopes to remedy such issues.

The standard also outlines competencies required for legal interpreters. These have to do with general competencies, domain-specific knowledge in the legal field — including a “thorough understanding of the roles of lawyers, judges, judicial officers, prosecutors, and interpreters” — as well as linguistic, interpreting, intercultural, interpersonal, and technical skills.

According to the standard, legal interpreters should also be capable of navigating the various modes of interpreting such as consecutive, simultaneous, whispered simultaneous (chuchotage), relay interpreting “along with sight translation and the support techniques such as memory skills, note-taking, and stress management.”

Examples of legal interpreting settings listed in the annex of the standard include the following:

  • Investigative/Police interviews and pre-trial proceedings – e.g., police interviews;
  • Judicial Settings – e.g., criminal proceedings;
  • Administrative Proceedings – e.g., asylum, customs and tax matters;
  • Legal matters requiring a notary – e.g., prenuptial agreements and power of attorney;
  • Legal and/or business negotiations – e.g., mediation and debt collection;
  • Settings involving intercepted telephone calls and other communication data;
  • Settings involving children, victims or other vulnerable persons – e.g., in juvenile courts;
  • Settings involving medical, psychological or psychiatric examination for judicial purposes; and
  • International courts.

Additionally, the standard sets out the typical workflow for legal interpreting assignments; from the initial request for legal interpreting through to debrief and payment of the legal interpreter.

Interested parties can access a copy of the legal interpreting services standard and the other standards related to language services via the ISO website.