Positives in improving access to the legal system

Justisigns team outside EU building

The European Commission funded JUSTISIGNS project recently came to an end. Its remit was to look at the barriers to justice for the Deaf community on a pan-European level. Jemina Napier, Robert Skinner and Graham H. Turner from Heriot-Watt University review their 30 month project.

In recent years, the experiences of Deaf people in communicating and accessing legal services (such as the police, courts services, and solicitor services) have been studied by researchers around the globe. Researchers are repeatedly finding a number of barriers experienced by Deaf sign language users when accessing the legal system: this could involve a situation where a Deaf person is suspected of a crime, a Deaf person who was victim of a crime, a Deaf person who witnesses a crime or a Deaf family member connected to a police investigation. The issues researchers often find are to do with awareness, communication and accessibility in each of the legal settings.

For access to be possible the legal services like the police, courts and solicitors need to first understand how Deaf people belong to a linguistic-cultural minority, with their own language, educational background and culture. In general, legal professionals communicating with Deaf people are not aware of these cultural and linguistic aspects. Due to this lack of Deaf awareness and appropriate training for barristers, solicitors, police, and interpreters working in legal settings, Deaf people experience inequalities when accessing the criminal justice system. This is a concern because there are a number of European Directives that require appropriate provisions, such as the right to an interpreter, to ensure access. Deeper knowledge and understanding of these issues will move towards resolving the barriers that are present in our current system.


Since December 2013 a team of international experts comprising hearing and deaf researchers and signed language interpreter practitioners across Europe have been collaborating on the JUSTISIGNS project. The consortium was made up of 7 partners from Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and UK. They are Interesource Group (Ireland) Limited, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, efsli (European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters), EULITA (European Legal Interpreters’ & Translators’ Association), KU Leuven in Belgium, University of Applied Sciences of Special Needs Education in Switzerland and Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. JUSTISIGNS was co-funded through the European Commission’s Leonardo Da Vinci Lifelong Learning programme.

JUSTISIGNS aims were to address the barriers that Deaf people encounter when they interact with the criminal justice system, the goal being to develop materials, workshops, and training for professional people working within the legal setting in order to provide a better or more accessible service for Deaf people. The project focused on promoting equal access in the justice system for Deaf sign language users and sought to understand the experiences of professionals who interact with Deaf people. The project also developed training courses to be made available to sign language interpreters, legal professionals and Deaf sign language users. The focus of the project was on access to police settings.

What was done in the JUSTISIGNS project?

Compilation of project photos

The first part of the project was the JUSTISIGNS survey which was developed to provide an overview of the current status of sign language interpreting in legal settings across Europe to better understand what the training needs of interpreters, and other stakeholders such as police officers and deaf people themselves might be. The questionnaires built on data collection protocols from the CO-Minor-IN/Quest project (see website here) which focused on interpreting with minors in investigative interviews, and the goal of the JUSTISIGNS survey was that data collected would help to gain an understanding of ways to improve the professional collaboration between all parties when an interpreter was needed. A questionnaire was developed and delivered through an online survey tool. Among the respondents were 4 deaf associations, 18 SLI associations, 10 educational/research institutions, 10 service providers and 1 translator’s association. The final number of responses for the purposes of analysis was 49 from 21 countries. The results of the survey as well as comments received from focus groups confirmed that there was a clear need to develop best practice guidelines, training materials and recommendations for training and certification, and to promote a consistent approach to access to justice for deaf sign
language users.

It appears that there is no uniform approach across Europe to the training or certification of legal interpreters, and the availability of interpreters for legal settings is a Europe-wide issue. Complementing the online survey was the focus groups and interviews the JUSTISIGNS research team carried out. In order to understand the typical experience of key stakeholders in the UK and Ireland for example, the UK and Irish teams prepared a series of protocols to elicit data: the research process included a questionnaire for Deaf and hearing sign language interpreters and/or focus group interviews.

One of JUSTISIGNS’ points of focus was capacity building for prospective Deaf Interpreters and the development of good collaborative strategies for working in Deaf-hearing interpreting teams in police settings, which had been the focus of the Irish team.

A major part of the project was engagement with the stakeholder through information sessions, piloting training and delivering masterclasses and workshops, as well as development of modules that could be delivered as part of training for legal interpreters and police officers.

Heriot-Watt University activities in the JUSTISIGNS project

As the UK partner in the project, Heriot-Watt University collaborated with Police Scotland, BDA Scotland, the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI), the Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) and the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR) on various data collection and analysis, events and resources. These have included:

• Focus group with police officers who have experience of working with deaf people and interpreters (2015)

• Focus group with police officers who have no experience working with deaf people and interpreters (2015)

• Interviews with experienced legal interpreters (2015)

• Focus group with deaf people who have experience of the justice system (2015)

• Input to the ASLI UK Best Practice Guidelines on Legal Interpreting (2015)

• Community information event (September 2015)

• Symposium on doing research on police interpreting (November 2015)

• Masterclass for Deaf BSL users, interpreters and police interviewers with Police Scotland and SASLI (November 2015)

• Translation workshop with Police Scotland and JustiSigns Legal Interpreting Agency (March 2016)

• Public engagement event with SIPR (May 2016).

Information about the project progress was regularly posted on the Heriot-Watt University ‘LifeinLINCS’ Blog (see website here) in English and BSL.

In a recent edition of the BDN it was mentioned that one of the issues raised during the discussions was the lack of standardisation in how to translate the Scottish police caution, so interpreters may produce different versions of the caution in BSL. As the police caution is legally binding, the words are used specifically and are read out verbatim by police interviewers and sometimes followed up by an explanation if the person being questioned does not understand the formal caution.

Although a BSL translation of the police caution used in England and Wales is available the wording of the caution is different from the Scottish Common Law Caution. So the Heriot-Watt University JUSTISIGNS team worked in collaboration with representatives from BDA Scotland, Police Scotland and experienced legal interpreters to produce a recommended translation of the Scottish Common Law Caution, as well as an explanation of what the Caution means. These resources are now freely available for Deaf BSL users, interpreters and police officers to access: Scottish Common Law Caution and Scottish Common Law Caution Explained.

The production of resources like the BSL version of the Scottish Common Law Caution is what made JUSTISIGNS a valuable research project, as our aims focused on bringing about better access.

As part of the project we also completed documentary interviews with various key people involved in ensuring access to justice for Deaf BSL users in Scotland, including:

Brenda Mackay, experienced legal BSL interpreter;

Helen Morgans-Wenhold, Hate Crime Officer BDA Scotland;

Constable Stephanie Rose, Equality & Diversity Officer Police Scotland;

Professor Ursula Böser, legal interpreting researcher Heriot-Watt University;

Professor Graham H. Turner, instigator of the ‘Equality before the Law’ research project at Durham University in 1994.

These videos, along with other documentary videos filmed by the other JUSTISIGNS consortium members will are available on the JUSTISIGNS website, along with all the other resources that have been developed.

What next?

The JUSTISIGNS project has now ended and to conclude our work a public seminar, entirely dedicated to the JUSTISIGNS project, hosted by MEP Helga Stevens and supported by the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli), Trinity College Dublin and Interesource Group (Ireland), took place at the European Parliament on 27th April 2016. The objective of the seminar was to discuss the policy and practice implications of our work. It is important for projects like JUSTISIGNS to remain relevant and inform policy makers of the issues experienced by Deaf people. This was an opportunity for JUSTISIGNS to present our findings and highlight the implications for key stakeholders. In the UK context, the Heriot-Watt University team held a round-table meeting on 25th May 2016 with representatives from SASLI, ASLI UK, NRCPD, Police Scotland and the Crown Prosecution Service of Scotland to discuss the next steps in ensuring that the knowledge and resources from the project can be carried forward to the benefit of all stakeholders, particularly in terms of ensuringstandards and quality of training and provision of interpreting services.

In summary, the key issues raised by the JUSTISIGNS project have not gone unnoticed. This presents a real opportunity to now begin delivering and sharing the JUSTISIGNS resources to tackle some very basic issues such as Deaf awareness across legal sectors. The JUSTISIGNS research team at Heriot-Watt University will continue to work closely with Police Scotland, SASLI, ASLI UK and Police Link Officers for the Deaf (PLOD) to ensure that research does reach those who are working with Deaf sign language users.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the people who have participated in our project and enabled us to develop materials and resources to look at ways of improving access to the legal system.

Justisigns logo

Did you know?

There are an estimated 1 million deaf sign language users in the EU. Deaf people are 2-3 times more likely to experience abuse and domestic violence than their hearing counterparts (Hoem Kvan 2004).

Visit www.justisigns.com to view the materials. Twitter: @JUSTISIGNS

Jemina Napier is Professor and Chair of Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Robert Skinner is a Research Associate in the Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt.

Graham H.Turner is Professor of Translation & Interpreting and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland (CTISS) at Heriot-Watt.