The current migration crisis is testing interpreting services across Europe. What is being done to ease the burden?

There are two topics one can predict will cause blood pressures to rise: migration, and interpreting services in courts and police stations.

Now they have come together. The EU took a great leap forward in guaranteeing minimum procedural rights when it passed the directive on the right to interpretation and translation for suspects and defendants (2010/64 EU) – little anticipating that the great EU migration crisis of 2015 would test the directive to its limits.

I am involved in a project funded by the EU, looking at the national implementation of the three existing directives guaranteeing minimum procedural safeguards. The three are the right to interpretation and translation (already mentioned), plus the right to information (2012/13/EU), and the right of access to a lawyer (2013/48/EU). The underlined letters in the previous sentence give the project its name: TRAINAC.

As you may know, the UK opted in to the first two directives, but not the third. Since my involvement means I look at the raw data as it flows into the project, I am in a position to judge how the UK fares relative to the other member states in its daily practices. The answer is: pretty well.

For those who have become excited in the past, for very good reasons, about the services provided by Capita Translation and Interpreting, you will be interested to know that England and Wales is not alone in outsourcing such services. The European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA) reports that it is a trend in several member states.

EULITA says that experience shows that the contracts with agencies frequently lack transparency as to the qualifications of the people to be signed up, and as to the payments charged for administrative services, which reduce the fees ultimately paid to interpreters. It also notes: ‘The trend … to outsource the provision of legal interpreting services to agencies does not contribute towards improving the quality of interpreting services, and it occasionally compromises the fairness of proceedings.

‘Measures such as categorising legal interpreters according to their qualifications, with the rationale that legal interpreters need not have top qualifications for certain types of hearings, usually result in the lowest-tier interpreters also being assigned to all court cases (including the most complicated ones).’

Ireland, one of the other outsourcers, reports: ‘It is done as a national contract with no input from defence lawyers with regard to quality for instance. The defence do not have the right to bring a private translator publicly funded to a police station. The situation would be different if the client could afford a translator themselves. Translators routinely volunteer their services for languages which they are not expert in. A Russian speaker might for instance indicate that they could satisfactorily translate for Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians.’

The situation will, unfortunately, only grow worse as more interpreters and translators are needed for the mass of new arrivals

The current migration crisis will impose burdens in an area where all member states report a problem even now – finding a service for rare languages. What is rare will vary from country to country. For Poland, it is Chinese, Vietnamese and Kurdish; for England and Wales, Farsi (Persian) and Kinyarwandan. The Czech Republic is alone in pointing to something which must be a rarity everywhere: an interpreter who not only knows legal terminology (much grumbling about that in practically every response), but also criminal slang.

There is not always a public register of interpreters and translators available for lawyers to consult. EULITA is trying to resolve this by setting up, with EU funding, a single and searchable EU-wide database of existing information, to be available on the European Commission’s e-justice portal.

There are already various ‘Find-A’ services on that website (Find-A-Lawyer or Find-A-Notary, for instance). There is also an invaluable guide on the same website, searchable by clicking on the country’s flag, to the interpreting and translating services and databases currently publicly available in each member state.

For the UK, links are provided to the Ministry of Justice guidance on court interpreters, the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI), and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). EULITA hopes to bring all the national databases together, so that they can be trawled by a single search engine.

The situation will, unfortunately, only grow worse as more interpreters and translators are needed for the mass of new arrivals. There is already pressure on interpreters’ fees, as a result of the directive’s requirement that the state must pay. Poland reports that low wages means that professional interpreters or translators are not interested in moving to become sworn interpreters or translators (authorised for court and legal work).

It would be interesting to undertake another study in three years’ time, once the migration crisis is - I hope - over.

Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs