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Language barriers in the criminal justice system
The Bell Foundation provides a range of research and resources to help people overcome language barriers in the criminal justice system.

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The Bell Foundation

The Bell Foundation, in partnership with the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), Victim Support and the Centre for Justice Innovation has just (15 March 2022) published a series of six research outputs relating to language barriers in the criminal justice system.

The series highlights the systemic issues in the criminal justice system which leave staff unsupported to accommodate language diversity, patchy language support services, and speakers of English as a second or additional language (ESL) facing significant barriers in accessing justice and rehabilitation, which may include their rights to support not being upheld.

The series of outputs were produced following a wide-ranging research project exploring the impact of language barriers on individuals’ experiences of the criminal justice system, whether as victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, or people with convictions. The series aims to strengthen the evidence base around the impact of language barriers as well as provide practical tools to allow practitioners to improve their practice in working with individuals who speak English as a second or additional language.

The series includes six outputs:

  1. Language barriers in the criminal justice system (Research Report).
  2. Language barriers in the criminal justice system (Executive Summary).
  3. Language barriers in the criminal justice system: Rights and Entitlements of people in contact with the criminal justice system who speak English as a second or additional language.
  4. Language barriers in the criminal justice system: The experience of victims and witnesses with English as a second or additional language.
  5. Language barriers in the criminal justice system: Good practice guidance for practitioners working with victims and witnesses of crime who speak English as a second or additional language.
  6. Language barriers in the criminal justice system: Good practice guidance for probation service staff and interpreters.

Key findings

Overall, speakers of English as a second or additional language (ESL) are often disadvantaged, as they may be denied fair justice outcomes and face barriers and constraints to access services and support, including rehabilitative initiatives. In addition, language needs intersect with other vulnerabilities, and taken together, these can further reduce access to services and support in the criminal justice system (CJS).

Capacity to support language diversity

  • Practitioners are mostly aware of the rights and entitlements to interpretation and translation for speakers of ESL, but access to language support is influenced by other factors, including time and resource pressures.
  • Information about an individual’s language needs is not always collated or shared across agencies in a routine or direct way and can depend on the quality of notes, or might have to be inferred from other information.
  • ‘Professional judgement’ is commonly used to assess whether someone requires an interpreter or can ‘manage’ in English. However, there is no standard approach or guidance about the level of English language proficiency that might be needed to participate effectively in criminal justice processes.
  • Many practitioners – from statutory and voluntary sectors – have never received training about supporting those who speak ESL and are unaware of any specific professional guidance on this, beyond how to book interpreters.
  • There are gaps in understanding among some criminal justice practitioners about how interpreters work, including in relation to what ‘good interpreting practice’ looks like and how best to accommodate interpreters in criminal justice processes. Similarly, interpreters’ expectations – that criminal justice practitioners should facilitate their work through things like advance briefings about likely content of discussions or the pacing of conversations, are not always met.
  • Greater ethnic and linguistic diversity of staff in the CJS strengthens service capacities for accommodating language needs, and volunteers have a key role in bolstering language support for those who speak ESL.
  • Criminal justice services are largely monolingual – aside from provision in the Welsh language, which is protected in law. The lack of written materials and web-based content providing service information and advice in languages other than English is a barrier to engagement with the CJS.

Access to justice and rehabilitation

  • Language needs often intersect with other vulnerabilities, including being victims of trafficking and having legally insecure and ‘unsettled’ immigration status. This is indicative of having few resources – immigration status also limits what intervention and support can be offered by probation and in prison.
  • Language barriers can limit access to general help and information to guide one through criminal justice processes; access to legal advice, especially in relation to immigration issues; rehabilitative interventions as part of community supervision under the probation service; and various services, interventions, and activities provided in prison.
  • Accounts from victims and witnesses highlight experiences of poor practice by police, including being denied rights to interpretation and translation where this was needed to report crimes and understand and navigate criminal justice processes.
  • Fellow prisoners can be a major source of language support in navigating life in prison – helping to plug the large gaps in formal language provision for speakers of ESL as well as providing day-to-day informal help in all areas of prison life.

Recommendations for change

The report makes a number of different recommendations around further research, rights & entitlements and ways to improve services and widen access. There are also suggestions to empower practitioners to support service users. These recommendations reproduced below:

Collecting data to build understanding and raise awareness 
  • Agencies should record first and other languages of individuals at every point of contact. This could be done when protected characteristics are recorded, to comply with the Equality Act (2010).
  • Agencies should ensure these data are easily retrievable to routinely review outcomes for those who speak ESL.
Rights and Entitlements
  • The right to understand and be understood must be enshrined in the upcoming Victims’ Law, actively promoted and its implementation monitored by agencies working with victims, whether statutory or voluntary.
  • Accountability for upholding legal and procedural rights and entitlements to language support must sit with a senior body in each area – policing, courts, prisons, probation, and victim support services – as is the case for upholding rights related to protected characteristics.
Improving services and widening access
  • Agencies should be aware of and remove barriers to access for speakers of ESL. This should include regularly reviewing service users’ language requirements to ensure service information is translated and appropriately targeted.
  • HM Prison and Probation Service should ensure that service users who speak ESL have access to the appropriate level of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes as part of their rehabilitation.
  • Voluntary sector organisations supporting asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking should explore opportunities to provide ESOL for people in contact with the CJS as part of service provision in the community.
  • Agencies should provide all written communications in easy read or pictorial formats.
Empowering practitioners to support service users
  • Agencies should introduce training and guidance for frontline staff on the nature and impacts of language barriers, and best practice in overcoming them, including how to communicate with service users both with and without language support.
  • Agencies should introduce guidance and tools for screening for ESL.
  • Agencies should have access to a high-quality interpretation service, where interpreters are familiar with the workings and vocabulary of the CJS.
  • Agencies should introduce guidance for frontline staff on potential cultural barriers, how these might impact understanding and communication and good practice in overcoming them.
Deploying innovative solutions
  • Agencies should explore how staff and volunteers might enhance language support wherever possible.
  • HM Prison and Probation Service should explore opportunities to formalise peer language support and offer educational opportunities for those who wish to undertake such peer work.


Thanks to Jon Tyson for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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