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Foreign Language Interpreters in the Scottish Criminal Courts - Research Findings

DescriptionThis research was commissioned in response to concern about the arrangements for and standards of the provision of foreign language interpreters in the Scottish courts.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998

Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 11 (1996)

Foreign Language Interpreters in the Scottish Criminal Courts
The MVA Consultancy

ISBN Publisher The Scottish Office Price £5.00

This research was commissioned in response to concern about the arrangements for and standards of the provision of foreign language interpreters in the Scottish courts. This concern arose from the results of research conducted in England and Wales which concluded that arrangements were poorly developed and that interpreters were often inadequately trained and qualified. This research, which covered all of Scotland, aimed to provide a geographical portrait of the use of foreign language interpreters in the criminal courts, to establish the quality of service being provided, and to identify, where possible, areas which the service could be improved.
Main findings
  • During the financial year 1994/95, 599 criminal cases where interpreters had been used were identified. Most of these were conducted by interpreters affiliated to local authority interpreting agencies (358 cases). Other agencies (embassies, universities and schools) and non-agency interpreters whose details were held by procurators fiscals were responsible for the remaining cases.
  • A small pool of interpreters were responsible for most of the criminal court assignments undertaken by local authority agencies. However, just under half of the agency interpreters and over half of the non-agency interpreters had only worked on one assignment.
  • There appear to be disparities in the competence of interpreters who work on criminal court assignments. Most agency interpreters have no formal interpreting qualifications and 29% had received no induction or briefing prior to their first court assignment. Non-agency interpreters ranged from very experienced freelance interpreters with formal qualifications through to inexperienced interpreters recruited specifically for a 'one-off' assignment.
  • Most interpreters who had received no briefing or instruction prior to their first criminal court assignment felt that they had made mistakes which might not have occurred had they been trained.
  • The research identified that there is a need for greater training of interpreters to prepare them for court work. The quality of the service could also be enhanced if interpreters were accompanied on their first court assignment by more experienced interpreters and if the rate of pay for court work was increased.
In 1991, The Nuffield Foundation conducted research into the use of criminal court interpreters in England and Wales and concluded that there were inadequacies in the quality of provision. These were considered to be very serious given that if the accused or witness is unable to understand the charges and the criminal proceedings the concept of equality before the law is undermined.
An informal study of the use of interpreters in the Scottish criminal courts was undertaken by Crown Office in 1993. They established that criminal court interpreters had been used on 741 occasions in 1993 and that there were some difficulties with current arrangements mainly associated with quality and the language skills of interpreters.
As a result, this research was commissioned to provide more detail on current arrangements and establish the quality of the service and, where possible, suggest areas in which the service could be improved. This was achieved through interviews with representatives of agencies who provide court interpreting services and a survey of both agency and non-agency interpreters (85 and 188 respectively).
Scale of criminal court interpreting
There are seven local authority interpreting agencies and they provided criminal court interpreters on 358 occasions during the financial year 1994/95. Other agencies, such as universities and embassies, accounted for a further 200 cases and non-agency interpreters a further 41 cases.
Criminal court assignments formed only a small proportion (7%) of all work undertaken by local authority agencies, and only 13% of interpreters currently registered with these agencies had worked on criminal court assignments. The main languages covered were Urdu, Punjabi and Chinese - these languages are reflective of the composition of the minority ethnic population in Scotland and these are the languages the agencies specialise in.
There were 188 non-agency interpreters identified from lists held in the 49 procurator fiscal offices in Scotland. A survey of the individuals on the lists identified only 39 people who had ever served as court interpreters and only 15 who had served in the last year. Over half of the 39 court interpreters had only worked on one court assignment, and a number said they were now no longer available for court work because assignments were too infrequent.
Recruitment and training
Interpreters are recruited to local authority agencies on the basis of their suitability as a community interpreter. Past knowledge of, and experience in, working with the community they are to serve can be more important to the agency than qualifications or court work experience when they are recruiting interpreters.
Recruitment of interpreters to procurator fiscal lists has been done on an informal and ad hoc basis in response to demand. The interpreter's word that they are fluent in the language required is often the only criterion used for inclusion on these lists. However, some very experienced professional interpreters have also been recruited.
Fifteen (29%) of the agency interpreters received no induction or briefing prior to their first assignment. Most felt they would have benefited from this. Those who did receive at least some briefing felt they had benefited.
An external training course in preparation for criminal court work is provided as part of the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting. Twenty three local authority agency interpreters had completed the Diploma and both experienced and inexperienced interpreters felt they had benefited from the course. However, concerns were expressed by interpreters themselves about the standard required to pass the Diploma, prompting most of those interviewed to comment that those with the Diploma should not always be guaranteed court assignments.
A further proposal relating to training was that representatives of criminal justice agencies required training in how to use interpreters. One view expressed was that they should try to put the interpreter at ease to prevent mistakes being made.
Selection for criminal court assignments
Criteria for selection for criminal court assignments are based on experience, qualifications and the agency co-ordinator's judgement of the interpreter's ability to deal with court dynamics. However, for the less common languages, less able or experienced interpreters may have to be supplied due to limited availability. Also, difficulties arise in maintaining consistency because there is a high turnover of court interpreters. This is largely due to the infrequency of their assignments.
Procurators fiscal allocate assignments based on language, availability and, occasionally, past experience of use. These can range from very experienced freelance interpreters who find court work relatively easy compared with more demanding assignments, through to inexperienced interpreters recruited specifically for a 'one off' assignment. In the past these have been tourists, friends of court officials, local shopkeepers etc.
Agencies monitor court interpreters by asking both court practitioners and the interpreters themselves to complete forms for each assignment allowing them to report any difficulties. Non-agency interpreters' work is not monitored in the same way, although court practitioners can register any dissatisfaction with them to the list sources.
One agency co-ordinator makes spot checks on court interpreters during assignments, whereas others felt this would only inhibit the interpreter. One suggestion was to tape record cases where an interpreter was used for independent checking and verification. However, this would only allow the interpreters' mistakes to be addressed after the court case by which time errors may have occurred. With spot checks, mistakes could be addressed immediately before an injustice occurs.
While there are few documented cases, there are instances where the quality of court interpreting has been poor. This is most evident from interpreters themselves who felt they did not provide an adequate service on their first assignments. There is also the apparent disparity in competence between interpreters associated with the methods of assignment allocation.
The difficulties identified show the need for greater training of interpreters to prepare them for court work. This, at its most basic level, should cover the do's and don'ts of court interpreting and the need for training in legal terminology also requires to be addressed.
One potential problem is that an increased effort in terms of training could mean valuable resources are used to train 'one off' interpreters as currently the low volume of business means that many interpreters only work in court once or a very few times. Cases do not arise often enough to keep court interpreters in regular employment.
The low rate of pay was also cited as a problem related to the competence of interpreters. High quality interpreters were unlikely to be attracted to the work and this was confirmed by the few private freelance interpreters interviewed who said they did court work as a favour rather than for any financial gain. Court interpreting is therefore largely left to community interpreters employed by agencies.
This Research Findings paper is based on research carried out by The MVA Consultancy during 1995. The full reports were published as part of the Central Research Unit series of research papers, and are available from HMSO at a cost of £5.00 each.
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