Procedural court interpreting


Some time ago I attended an interesting seminar with Professor Mike Hough, Founder and Associate Director of the Institute for Crime Policy Research at Birkbeck College, University of London. The seminar took place at the Centre for Justice Innovation and the purpose of the talk was to discuss ‘fairness in courts’.

In so doing, Mike introduced the concept of procedural justice which, to put it simply, is about ‘fair respect’ in criminal justice systems. The origins of the theory have been ascribed to Tom Tyler, who argues that criminal justice processes and procedures, for example police activity, leading up to a court appearance should be performed in a fair manner. And this is because people view a fair justice process as more important than a particular outcome (for example the type and length of sentence).

It seems that there is a quite simple logic driving procedural justice. People who hold negative views about the criminal justice system, are more likely to disregard the law. Thus, the theory strives to explain how fair performance of the justice system makes people willing to obey the police and comply with the law. Drawing on Mike’s presentation, the logic of procedural justice can be explained along these lines:

                         Fair respect   –     Trust in justice

             Trust in justice    –    Legitimacy

                                          Legitimacy     –     Compliance with the law


Mike also pointed out that trust in competence, legality and fairness are drivers of court legitimacy, however, courts have actually very limited control of how they are perceived by the following audiences: victims, witnesses, offenders, and the public. At this point I would like to share my thoughts on how court interpreters, another valuable audience, may participate in procedural justice.

I am a qualified court interpreter who interacts with criminal justice professionals and their ‘clients’ on a daily basis. In this context the ‘clients’ are foreign defendants who come from different jurisdictions, but this also means they frequently hold different perceptions of crime, punishment and justice. I have long observed that court interpreting goes beyond simple acts of linguistic performance. Although the presence of court interpreters in the criminal justice system aims at providing their formal role, I would like to take a more comprehensive look at this. If it is the case that anything leading up to the actual court appearance, can contribute to the production of procedural justice, it would appear to me that court interpreters unknowingly take part in this process too.

As much as our linguistic skills, our conduct may also translate and filter thousands of concepts and ideas to the defendant. Court interpreters can actually reveal and conceal an awful lot of issues that may contribute to how foreign defendants view the criminal justice system.

Well, court interpreters are good at filling the gaps or camouflaging some obvious deficiencies of the criminal justice system, deficiencies that might not be that obvious to foreign defendants. Court waiting times or pre-court consultations can be powerful opportunities to set the scene for a range of perceptions as it is the first point of contact so judgements can be made at this point. Asking for the defendant to be seen by a duty solicitor, explaining what happens in a courtroom or how to pay a fine are just a few of many examples I could put forward here. Not to mention the constant fight against strikingly poor acoustics of the majority of (UK) court docks. And just on that note, whenever I step into the dock I think of Linda Mulcahy’s article – Putting the defendant in their place. Why do we still use the dock in criminal proceedings? – and quickly rephrase the title into – Putting court interpreters in their place. Why can we still not hear fully in the dock in criminal proceedings? I believe that at some point I shall write a separate blogpost to discuss this issue at length.

Likewise court interpreters’ conduct can do just the opposite and in consequence stand in the way of procedural fairness. Unprofessional conduct, unhelpful remarks and suggestions can provide the underlying basis for unfavourable perceptions of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the cuts to legal aid have led for instance to occasional, but still wrong and disadvantageous to all involved in the justice process, expectations that interpreters could ‘step into solicitors’ shoes’.

Given the demand for court interpreting services in the United Kingdom, court interpreters can widen the spectrum that participate in the production of procedural justice. Nevertheless it can be both quite powerful and fragile extension audience.


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