New Research Reveals Language Barriers in UK Justice System

New Research Reveals Language Barriers in UK Justice System

New UK-focused research funded by The Bell Foundation has examined the wide-ranging language access issues faced by speakers of English as a second language (ESL) when interacting with the UK Criminal Justice System (CJS).

The report, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, was a collaboration between the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, Victim Support, and the Center for Justice Innovation.

The study delves into the inner workings of the CJS, investigates the impact of ESL in accessing justice and rehabilitation, and provides practical solutions to help those working in the justice system improve the way they interact with ESL speakers.

To encompass policy and national-level data, the researchers conducted interviews with practitioners in statutory and voluntary sectors (i.e., CJS employees) as well as interpreters working across the justice system.

System Glitches

ESL speakers may be denied fair justice outcomes and face barriers and constraints to accessing services and support, including rehabilitative initiatives, the study found.

Crucially, many of the CJS employees interviewed had never received training for supporting ESL speakers and were unaware of any relevant professional guidance, beyond how to book interpreters.

Interviewees also demonstrated gaps in understanding about how interpreters work, including what “good interpreting practice” looks like, and how best to accommodate interpreters in criminal justice processes.

The pandemic, alongside various practical and financial factors, had also limited access to professional interpretation and translation, according to the study. “Less formal methods for responding to language support needs included using Google Translate, drawing on the language skills of staff, volunteers, friends and family and peer support.”

One issue around interpreter booking systems: CJS employees were reportedly not allowed to request the same interpreter multiple times. This undermined interpreting consistency, which is crucial for building trust and rapport. Interviewees also reported that technical glitches impacted the quality of over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) services. I Recruit Talent. Find Jobs

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Gaming the System

The study also explored how the presence of an interpreter affected courtroom dynamics. It was a point of concern that the mere presence of an interpreter could create negative perceptions of the defendant or witness on the part of court professionals and legal practitioners.

Negative perceptions included suspicions that defendants or witnesses were hiding something or were gaming the system. Research also showed that the presence of an interpreter, at times, caused irritation and / or caused delay or disruptions in CJS proceedings.

According to the study, criminal justice practitioners were sometimes worried that interpreters would paraphrase or summarize conversations. The CJS was reportedly uncertain or anxious about using professional interpreters, and researchers observed a preference for using non-specialist or untrained interpreters within the CJS itself to deliver language services.

Moreover, the report found that the use of professional language services by the CJS is often framed as an additional cost on an overburdened system. This raised questions about declining standards of language support and triggered negative attitudes from the interpreter community about the terms and conditions under which they were expected to work.


To address current shortcomings, researchers identified five key action areas for CJS agencies.

  • Collecting data to build understanding and raise awareness of language barriers in the CJS;
  • Rights and entitlements to language support for ESL individuals;
  • Improving services and widening access;
  • Empowering practitioners to support service users;
  • Deploying innovative solutions.

Within these broad areas, certain recommendations stood out; notably, encouraging CJS agencies to train frontline staff on the impact of language barriers, how to deal with such issues, and training staff on how to communicate when there is no access to a professional interpreter. In addition, CJS agencies should have access to high-quality interpretation services, where interpreters are familiar with legal vocabulary and how the CJS works.

The UK Criminal Justice System currently allows the use of CJS-trained volunteers as well as friends and family for language support. However, this has raised concerns around potential breaches of confidentiality and the inappropriateness of relaying personal details via an unknown individual.