Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System

The report of an important research project on language barriers in the criminal justice system (CJS) was launched at an online event on 15 March 2022. The report focusses on the needs of those for whom English is a second or additional language, often abbreviated to ESL or EAL.  

A recording of the event is available on You Tube. Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System: Research and Practice - YouTube

The report was funded by the Bell Foundation and supported by a partnership including Victim Support, Birbeck College, the Centre for Justice Innovation and the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research. It is part of a Bell Foundation Criminal Justice Programme which seeks to break down the language and cultural barriers to accessing and achieving justice and rehabilitation for individuals who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL) in contact with the criminal justice system.

Alongside the full research report, the project has published a paper about the lived experience of victims and witnesses who speak English as a second language (ESL), and guidance for practitioners. They are easily accessible on the Policy and Research Reports section of the Victim Support website.

Reports - Victim Support

This is an important suite of documents which deserve attention from the restorative justice sector as it seeks to understand the challenges it faces in working with diversity. They consider the needs of all those who come into contact with the CJS whether as victims, witnesses, offenders or the wider community impacted by its interventions. The way in which the project has engaged with both practitioners and service users is especially noteworthy. The main report has an excellent five- page summary of its findings and recommendations.

Language-barriers-in-cjs_Summary.pdf (victimsupport.org.uk)

The research suggests that the main needs for interpretation include Polish, Romanian, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Albanian, Arabic and Kurdish. The 2011 Census reported that 4.2 million people (7.7 per cent) reported another main language. London had the highest proportion with another main language (22.1 per cent). The equivalent data from the 2021 Census is awaited.

One especially shocking case study in the report highlights the case of a victim of domestic abuse who was initially detained by the Police as the perpetrator because their abusive partner was able to speak to the Police in English, whilst the victim needed to communicate in Romanian. Eventually, after explaining through an interpreter what had happened, the victim was released and allowed to go home. Her partner was later charged, and the case proceeded to court. (Page 35, Main Report)

Many of the recommendations raised are very relevant to the restorative justice sector. Just to highlight a few, the report recommends that organisations such as those in the restorative justice sector should consider the follow steps:

Record the first and other languages of individuals at every point of contact. This could be done when protected characteristics are recorded, to comply with the Equality Act (2010). Agencies should ensure these data are easily retrievable to routinely review outcomes for those who speak ESL. The report highlights the need for this to be raised in a sensitive manner, recognising the anxieties people may have about it.

Promote the right to understand and be understood set out in the Revised Victims Code, the Witness Charter and (hopefully!) the forthcoming Victims Law. Defendants and offenders have rights in this respect too. For example, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) sets out the rights of a detainee in police custody, of which they must be informed.

Empower practitioners to support service users with ESL. It should make sure the practitioner guidance developed by the Project is widely available to its paid staff and volunteers. Agencies need to consider how to access and use interpreting facilities, in partnership with their statutory partners including those commissioning services, and the risks of making use of family and friends of the service user for this purpose.

Review existing staff and volunteer language skills and aim to have a workforce that reflects the linguistic diversity of service users. There is scope for organisations to be more aware of and make better use of the language skills of their existing workforce, as well as considering how to diversify it.

The Bell Foundation Criminal Justice Programme has also funded Why Me? to undertake a research project, called Project Articulate, which aims to widen access to Restorative Justice for people with English as an Additional Language (EAL). Five very interesting case studies – in the form of videos – are available on the Why Me? website. Project Articulate: Restorative Justice for people with English as an Additional Language (EAL) — Why Me? Restorative Justice (why-me.org)

The ability to communicate is central to people’s experience of the criminal justice system and their ability to access restorative justice is an element of it where high quality communication is key. Even for those fluent in both spoken and written English this can be challenging and made more difficult by the stressful and sensitive circumstances people usually face when they are in contact with the system. How often do we collectively fail the simple test of using plain language? This failure also makes it much more difficult to translate into the other languages required by victims, witnesses, defendants or offenders. This report is a very timely challenge for a much greater priority to be given to effective communication – something that would benefit all those who come into contact with the system, not only those for whom English is a second language.


David Smith

RJC Policy and Communications Officer