Blog: Is the criminal justice system fair to multilingual victims?

In this blog, we explore the language barriers faced by victims in the criminal justice system, and consider the changes needed to ensure their “right to understand and to be understood” is upheld.

The fact that the “right to understand and to be understood” comes first in the Victims’ Code of Practice says a lot about its importance. Yet, victims of crime who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL) face inconsistent provision to help them understand their rights and make their voices heard.

We have seen some positive changes being brought about by the Victims’ Code. But does this alone go far enough, and will they be enforceable in practice?

Language barriers in the criminal justice system

Our research, published last year, laid bare the language barriers experienced by ESL speakers in the criminal justice system, and how these can critically undermine their access to justice.

Issues such as time and resource pressures or simply not being aware of legal entitlements have left ESL speakers facing patchy and inconsistent provision of language support.

While some victims spoke positively about the support when it was available, for others it simply was not offered or their request for support was denied because staff believed their level of English proficiency was sufficient.

“It was 100% I would need an interpreter to explain properly what happened with me and what [the perpetrator] said or this or that… I already said to the police…  I think I said, ‘Can I take interpreter?’ … The police said, 'Your English is very well. I can understand you.’ But I was needing an interpreter, to be honest…”
Victim, Violent Crime

Although the language used in the criminal justice system can be notoriously complex and formal, even for most native English speakers, many ESL victims reported not being provided with translations of legal material. This leaves many facing the anxiety of learning unfamiliar terms, while also attempting to deal with the trauma of being a victim of a crime.

“And the way that the letters [from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)] are written, some of the words are in quite a high standard level of English… Even the letter which I received from the police when they let me know the date of the court, I pretty much understood only that sentence, which says ‘the court date will be at…’ that time. On the top of the letter and the bottom of the letter, there were words which I never - I didn’t understand it.”
Victim, Hate Crime

The absence of crucial language support can leave victims unable to articulate important circumstantial details to the police, and can result in adverse outcomes such as inaccurate statements, negative effects on victims’ wellbeing, and an undermining of trust in the police. At its most extreme, this has even led to victims being mistakenly identified as the perpetrator and treated as such.

“He [police officer] said that he took, I don't know, some details from the landlord [the perpetrator], then he said to me, ‘Be careful because I’m going to arrest you… ’ I said ‘what for. I mean, I called you, we called you...’ And he said ‘you're giving problems to the landlord…’ They were very rude.”
Victim, Burglary

There is also evidence of perpetrators who speak English disrupting and interfering with victims’ attempts to explain their circumstances to the police (for more information, see page 8).

Enshrining the rights in law

The Victims’ Code has brought welcome attention to the needs of victims, including those experiencing language and cultural barriers. This has the potential to improve the experiences of victims who speak ESL.

To prevent these rights from becoming a paper tiger, though, they need to be enshrined in law. When this was discussed as part of the debates on the Victims and Prisoners Bill, the Government responded that “the operational detail of how the [principles] are delivered sits in the code itself”, we believe there is a case for this first right to be fully and clearly enshrined in law.

Addressing the lack of data

Beyond enshrining the right in law, we must ensure that measures are in place to assess agencies’ provision for ESL speakers, holding them accountable, and to guide resources to the areas of the system which require the most linguistic support. And to do this, we need more data.

Currently, we do not know how many speakers of ESL there are in the criminal justice system, because this data is simply not routinely collected, recorded, assessed nor shared.

Without this, we are missing a critical step in ensuring that ESL speakers receive the support they need, and an essential tool in assessing compliance with the Victims’ Code.

We continue to call for agencies to systematically record and assess first and other languages of individuals at every point of contact in the CJS, and for this data to be easily retrievable to routinely review outcomes for those who speak ESL.

The Victims’ Code is an important and welcome step in the right direction, but we must go further if we are to ensure that all victims, regardless of their language status, can achieve justice.

Find out more

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