When dealing with the police, deaf people are at a major disadvantage

by Jemina Napier

This article was originally published in The Conversation by , Professor and Chair of Intercultural Communication, Heriot-Watt University. Jemina Napier has received co-funding for JUSTISIGNS through the European Commission’s Leonardo Da Vinci Lifelong Learning programme, and from the UK arts and humanities research council.

 

When dealing with the police, deaf people are at a major disadvantage

Are you receiving me? Matt Antonio

We all have occasions when we need to deal with the police. Perhaps your car has been stolen and you have to report it; or perhaps you have witnessed a mugging and you have been called to the police station to be interviewed and provide a witness statement. Or perhaps you have been accused of shoplifting and the security guard has detained you in the back room until the police arrive.

Interacting with the police can be stressful, regardless of whether you are a witness, a victim or a culprit. Most of us have one very useful advantage, however: we can hear. Anyone who is deaf and has dealt with the police may have found communication a major problem. Too often, the forces in the UK and elsewhere in Europe struggle to provide sign language interpreters at short notice or even to understand the needs of deaf people. It hampers their access to justice and needs to be addressed urgently.

The first thing to make clear is that we are talking about quite a substantial number of people. The European Union of the Deaf estimates there are approximately a million deaf sign language users in Europe. In the UK, there are estimated to be approximately 70,000 deaf people who use British Sign Language as their first or preferred language.

This is a linguistic and cultural minority group with its own accepted norms of behaviour. And most people probably don’t realise that deaf people use different sign languages in every country around the world. They identify one another on that basis in the same way that a British person might identify a German or Spaniard through the way they talk.

Interpreter rights

When it comes to the justice system as a whole, deaf people’s right to interpreters has increasingly been recognised – even if this is typically enshrined in disability discrimination law rather than laws to protect cultural minorities. But while there are now established systems for providing interpreters in courts and tribunals, and clear guidelines on booking them for police interviews and solicitor consultations in the UK and some other countries across Europe, researchers have repeatedly found that deaf people encounter barriers.

The issues are often to do with people in the justice system not being aware of the need to book interpreters to ensure that deaf people can communicate. This can usually be resolved in time for court cases or for courses in prison, but what happens in police encounters at short notice?

Sitting comfortably? Boogaloo

There are reports of police misreading a deaf person’s attempts to communicate. On some occasions, deaf people have had to wait many hours before an interpreter can be found and they can be interviewed by police.

There are recurring cases of people giving witness statements without an interpreter (or with an unqualified person). The statement is then admitted as evidence in court, and the deaf person doesn’t understand the process they have been involved in or the consequences of signing the statement. As the police interview is the first point of contact in a legal process, it is essential that people understand their rights and the process. This can’t happen for deaf people if they don’t have a professional qualified interpreter in the interview.

JUSTISIGNS

To better understand the problem in police settings and address the barriers, I have been collaborating with a team of international specialists for the past three years. The JUSTISIGNS project includes seven universities and sign language professional bodies from the UK, Switzerland, Belgium and Ireland.

We found that there is no uniform approach across Europe to training or certifying legal sign language interpreters or making such people available for deaf people in the justice system. Through a series of focus groups and interviews with police officers, deaf people and interpreters in the four countries, our findings included:

  • Police officers are unaware that sign-language users need to have an interpreter present as they cannot necessarily lipread or write notes; and are unclear on the qualifications or level of expertise required of sign language interpreters. There are no clear guidelines for how interpreters and police can work together;
  • Some police forces have policies to guide officers when it comes to interviewing deaf suspects/witnesses/victims – in the UK, some forces have begun to develop online videos for example – but police officers do not always know about best practice;

  • There are not enough interpreters available at short notice to meet recommendations that only qualified and experienced practitioners be used in the legal system;
  • Though some interpreters have received legal training, interpreters are often nervous of working in police interviews in case they get called as a witness in a later court case;
  • There is a lack of established legal terminology in British Sign Language and other sign languages.
Best practice rarely followed. Photographee.eu

On the back of this evidence, JUSTISIGNS held masterclasses and training workshops for police officers and interpreters in the partner countries; and events and meetings to inform deaf people and other relevant organisations and professionals of the project. In the UK, it helped develop best practice guidelines on legal interpreting and worked with Police Scotland on a British Sign Language translation of the Scottish law caution and an explanation of what it means.

The hope is that in years to come, deaf people will be able to deal with the police in unexpected situations without any disadvantage. That is certainly what they are entitled to expect.

Justisigns: Promoting access to legal settings for deaf sign language users

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 r.skinner@hw.ac.uk.

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.