Written by Robert Skinner
Click here to see a BSL version of this blog
How accessible is your local police force? Is your local police force prepared for a situation that involves a deaf person? What about the interpreting provisions? What specific training is needed to improve interpreting standards that go on to protect deaf individual’s rights when it comes to accessing the justice system?
Legislation is in place that recognises the human rights of deaf people to ensure equal access to the legal system. On 20 October 2010 the European Parliament adopted the Directive on the Rights to Interpretation and Translation in Criminal Proceedings. This means everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:
- to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him;
- to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court
The principle that every European citizen is entitled to equal access to justice is well established and is enshrined in EU legislation and case law. EU Member State’s Public service providers are under an obligation to ensure equality of provision of their services across language and culture.
What does this mean for the average deaf European citizen? This means that your local Police Force is under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate the provision of their service to deaf people. Before this can be acted upon police forces first need to know what equal access means, what steps need to be taken and how this can be delivered.
Justisigns is a 30-month project funded through the European Commission Leonardo Da Vinci Lifelong Learning Programme, and the aim of the project is to promote access to justice for deaf sign language users, with a particular focus on police settings. Jemina Napier, Graham Turner and Robert Skinner from the Languages & Intercultural Studies department at Heriot-Watt University are conducting the project in collaboration with consortium partners: Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, University of Applied Sciences of Special Needs Education in Switzerland, KU Leuven in Belgium, efsli (European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters) and EULITA (European Legal Interpreters & Translators Association).
The project is scheduled to end in May 2016. The first phase of the project involved conducting a survey of the nature of legal interpreting provision for deaf people across Europe (Napier & Haug, in preparation). In sum, it was found that although there are some established provisions for legal sign language interpreting across Europe, it is inconsistent. Furthermore, there does not seem to be a uniform approach across Europe to the training/ certification of legal interpreters, and the (lack of) availability of interpreters for legal settings is a Europe-wide issue. It is, however, difficult to identify legal sign language interpreting needs when it is not possible to identify the number of deaf sign language users in the legal system
The consortium has decided to focus on deaf people’s access to interpreters in police interviews for the next stage of the project until May 2016, as this is an under researched area. The goal of the project is to collect data through focus groups and interviews with deaf people, interpreters and police officers about their experiences. The information we gather will then be used to develop training materials and to offer workshops/ courses to these key stakeholder groups. By applying research in this way we can ensure deaf people and interpreters influence how equal access to the legal system is established.
In the 1990s, a ground-breaking study ‘Equality before the Law’ from the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Durham University was published (Brennan & Brown, 1997). In this research a range of issues were identified such as:
- Lack of understanding and appreciation from the legal profession around what it means to be deaf and be part of a linguistic/cultural minority group.
- Negative attitudes towards interpreters.
- The awareness and need to use a registered/qualified interpreter who has been trained to work in court/police settings. In many cases CSW or family/friends were used to act as interpreters.
- Lack of training opportunities to prepare trained interpreters to effectively work in Court/Police settings.
- Treatment of deaf people as mentally disabled or “dumb”.
- Failure from legal professionals to make adjustments that enable the interpreter to do his/her job.
- Failure from legal representatives to video tape interviews with deaf suspects/witness/victims.
- The need to develop internal policies that promote the use of good practice, such as booking a qualified interpreter; filming an interview
- Few deaf people understood their own legal rights.
- Deaf people do not always understand the reasons for their convictions – thus questioning the outcome of their “rehabilitation”.
- Challenges with providing a faithful and accurate interpretation between English into BSL and BSL into English
While this list represents a scary reality, where deaf people are at risk of being wrongly convicted, our preliminary research has found some level of progress in the UK over the last 18 years. For example:
- There is legislation in place that insists on equality before the law.
- It is recommended that only qualified interpreters are used in the legal system.
- Some interpreters have received legal training.
- Some police forces have in place policies to guide officers when it comes to interviewing deaf suspects/witnesses/victims.
- A few police forces in the UK have begun to develop online videos, recognising the specific linguistic and cultural needs of the deaf community.
- Deaf professionals are now working within the legal system.
What our research so far reveals is that some forms of good practice exists. Unfortunately, we are not seeing a consistent approach to ensuring that the rights of deaf people are protected. Often good practice is achieved because individuals recognise the linguistic and cultural differences of deaf people. This tell us that what is needed is quite basic, a shared recognition and appreciation that deaf people belong to a distinct linguistic and cultural community. Once this definition has accepted the values of the legal system can begin to meet the needs of this community. The linguistic challenges interpreters experience in legal settings still persist, many of these challenges appear because of how the language is used and the vocabulary differences between English and BSL.
The Justisigns work is not complete. We are still running further focus groups and interviews. To support our research we are looking for volunteers in Scotland and England to participate. If you would like to contact us about your experience please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The evidence we collect will be used to inform the development of training materials and recommended guidelines for police forces.
A research symposium will also be held as part of the project on Saturday 7th November 2015, to discuss various methodological approaches to conducting interpreting research in legal settings. See http://ctiss.hw.ac.uk/seminars/justisigns.html or http://artisinitiative.org/events/artisheriot-watt2015/
More information about the project can be seen here: http://www.justisigns.com/JUSTISIGNS_Project/About.html with a version in BSL at http://www.justisigns.com/justisigns_sls/BSL.html
All information collected through the research will remain confidential. The project has received ethics approval from the Heriot-Watt University School of Management & Languages Ethics office.