An industry focus on interpretation in the legal field

30 Jan 2018

Legal interpreting is one of the fastest growing areas within the interpretation industry. In many countries with growing numbers and a growing diversity of residents with limited proficiency in the host language, there is a struggle to meet the demand for qualified legal interpreters and this has led to problems such as adjournment of court cases and delays with criminal proceedings.  

If a state cannot meet its demand for legal interpreters, it creates serious problems. In Europe, human rights legislation states that everyone has a right ‘to be informed promptly, in a language which they understand and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against them’ and ‘to have the free assistance of an interpreter if they cannot understand or speak the language used in court’. In the United States, it is a requirement that legal interpreters are provided for anyone with limited English skills in court proceedings or any court-ordered programs.

Although legal interpreting mostly involves interpreting in the courtroom, legal interpreters work in various different settings. This includes being present for all lawyer-client communication, assisting with interviews with witnesses and victims, and being called in by police or law enforcement agencies during questioning and investigations.

We will look here at the importance of interpretation in the legal field, the current challenges and problems faced as well as what can be done to improve the current situation.

Why legal interpreting is important

As mentioned, legal interpreting is an important concern across the globe. Migration flows are increasing, the current refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing up and there is an ongoing demand for qualified interpreters in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Having professional interpreters available to courts and legal teams benefits all concerned and there are a number of reasons why their presence is important.

It ensures proper representation for those on trial

First and foremost, it helps to guarantee that defendants requiring language assistance in court receive a fair trial as detailed in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is a basic minimum right for all individuals. Failure to provide adequate interpreting services can lead to grave miscarriages of justice. One famous case is that of Gene Gibson, an indigenous Australian man who spent five years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit after he wasn’t provided with an interpreter when communicating with his lawyer or the police.

It helps to ensure that the criminal justice system works better  

Providing sufficient legal interpretation coverage doesn’t just benefit those appearing in courts who are in need of language assistance, it benefits society as a whole by tightening up the criminal justice system and reducing such miscarriages of justice as detailed above. If people are wrongfully charged or prosecuted due to failures in communication, it means that true perpetrators of these crimes are still at large. If crime victims or witnesses who need interpreters don’t get the help they need, they can’t give proper evidence and this compromises the justice system.   

It speeds up the justice system

In many instances, if qualified legal interpreters can’t be provided then cases get adjourned. If poor quality interpreters are used, trials may collapse and end up having to be rescheduled. This slows the cogs of the justice system. In the UK, it was revealed in 2016 that more than 2,600 court cases had been adjourned over a five year period due to lack of available skilled interpreters.

It saves money

If court cases get adjourned or rescheduled due to lack of interpreters, this results in a needless waste of money as well as time. If cases end up being appealed and overturned on language issues, this creates additional expenses. In the UK, repeated failure to provide interpreters in one adoption case cost the government contractor nearly £16,000.

It guarantees professional standards

As well as being fluent in at least two languages, fully qualified professional legal interpreters are trained to understand all aspects of the legal system and are familiar with legal procedures. They will have a knowledge of legal terms and will be trained to follow ethics and guidelines, e.g. on impartiality, so that court hearings and rulings are not compromised. Court interpreters also usually require security clearance which means they are trusted to handle sensitive information.

It benefits law firms

Law firms also benefit from professional legal interpreters as the presence of skilled interpreters helps them to better understand their clients and build up a relationship of trust. If solicitors are able to communicate properly with clients without risk of errors or misunderstandings, it helps them to build a stronger case and increases their chance of a successful outcome.

Current challenges and problems in legal interpretation

Lack of qualified interpreters

There is a general shortage of skilled interpreters globally. Numbers have decreased over the past decade, and the head of English translation at the United Nations in Geneva has expressed concerns about not enough new blood coming through. The legal interpretation industry has faced severe shortages in many countries. The 2,600 adjournments in the UK have been down to lack of skilled interpreters coming through. There are also severe shortages in the US, which has led to ad hoc interpreters being used in some cases and mistakes being made. Japan is another country facing problems, with just 22 interpreters currently covering 76 prisons.

If ad hoc interpreters are brought in to cover the gaps in qualified interpreters, it increases the chance of courtroom errors. For example, in one Californian case, an ad hoc English-Spanish interpreter confused the terms for ‘traffic violation’ and ‘rape’.  

Increasing language diversification

Another challenge is that the language needs continue to diversify in many countries, particularly in big cities. There are over 300 different languages spoken throughout the UK. Around 220 languages are spoken in California and surveys have found that 7 million residents there do not speak English well.

Providing interpreters that speak all of these languages is difficult and there are many lesser spoken languages and dialects where there is no coverage at all.

Privatised services

The problems of interpreter shortages in the UK have largely been blamed on the outsourcing of legal interpretation services to a private contractor, Capita Translation and Interpreting. Until 2012, independent qualified interpreters were booked directly by the courts and sourced through a regulated national register. But in a money-saving move, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) awarded a contract to Capita. According to MoJ statistics in 2015, Capita were failing to provide interpreters in  over 30 cases a day (over 5 percent of all cases).

Cuts to funding

The privatisation of services in the UK has happened at the same time as funding cuts of nearly £1 billion to legal aid. This has led to a 57 percent drop in the number of prison law cases receiving legal aid and a vast rise in people defending themselves.

If people are unable to secure the necessary legal support, this makes interpreters’ jobs difficult at best and near-impossible at worst and it reduces the likelihood that an interpreter will be provided. Additional service cuts have also been cited by professional interpreters for errors in service delivery.

Improving the current situation


  • More measures to increase the recruitment of skilled interpreters – the only sure-fire solution to addressing the current shortage is to put efforts into driving up recruitment. This can be done by, for example, making it easier for those interested in getting into legal interpreting to get the necessary qualifications. The UK recently saw the launch of a new diploma qualification to help address the national shortage of interpreters in the public sector, but what is really needed are resources that are specific to the legal interpretation industry.
  • Increase the use of new technologies, e.g. remote video interpreting – a solution that makes it easier to access interpreters as well as reducing costs such as transport costs, and one that may well need to be utilized to properly address shortages. Although there are certain drawbacks with this method, such as risk of equipment failing, and it also has an impact on the role of interpreters and how they carry out their work. Research has shown that some interpreters are uncomfortable working in this way.
  • Improve funding levels – in the UK in particular, the drastic cuts to legal services have worsened the problems faced by the legal interpretation industry. Improvements will only come about if services are given the funding they need to ensure that all individuals receive adequate legal representation. As has already been explained, spending money to get things right initially saves a lot of money wasted on rectifying mistakes in the long run.

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