In our first article of the series we explored the complex nature of expert assessment of deaf clients. The use of an appropriate expert witness and the need for necessary adjustments to meet the individual needs of each deaf client were discussed. These adjustments are necessary to promote equity of access to services and true access to justice. In this second article of the series, we will explore the challenges associated with working with sign language interpreters (SLIs) in greater detail and make recommendations for best practice.

Who should interpret?

For deaf people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL), an essential adjustment to any situation using English language is the provision of a qualified sign language interpreter (SLI) with experience in legal work. Given that interviews by solicitors and mental health assessments by experts can involve highly challenging material, including stories of child abuse, it would be highly advantageous if SLIs have experience of training in mental health because without this, it is probable that their interpretation will be compromised, and the interpretation inaccurate (Cornes & Napier, 2005).

In practice, the following scenarios are, however, unfortunately common:

  • Deaf family members are asked to act as interpreters despite the ethical implications, their lack of qualifications and an obvious conflict of interest;
  • No interpreters are used;
  • Different interpreters are used at different times;
  • Unqualified or trainee interpreters are used;
  • Interpreters have been booked but if they do not attend, the assessment has still gone ahead; and
  • Interpreters with no experience or training in legal settings are used.

Each of the above scenarios increases the likelihood of error, and unreliability, and ultimately lack of access to justice. We suggest that at a minimum the SLI should be fully qualified, and registered with the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD). Ideally they should also have experience of working in a legal setting and have experience of working in psychological contexts.

A further note of caution concerns lip-reading. Some deaf people will state they do not need an interpreter and can lip-read. It is important to be aware that even in optimum circumstances with highly proficient lip-readers, only about 25-40% of words are read accurately. This means that in anxiety provoking conditions, with complex legal language, lip-reading is likely to be highly inaccurate. In addition some deaf people will say they don’t need an interpreter due to negative feelings about needing sign language, embarrassment or a desire to speed things along. If this occurs it is always worth seeking a communication assessment from a specialist speech and language therapist or a psychologist specialising in deafness.

Cultural considerations: restricted access and expectations

It is important to note that even if appropriately qualified SLIs are utilised, it is inevitable that deaf people unfortunately suffer from a lack of access to information. Deaf people are faced with restricted access to the court bundle, information shared at meetings and important assessments. This is on top of a lifetime of restricted access to information which may make an individual appear naïve, unintelligent or even aggressive (if they are attempting to be assertive) when this is not the case. This may mean that many deaf people appear somewhat naïve when faced with legal proceedings and be seen erroneously as incompetent. It is important to acknowledge this and take the time with the deaf client to support full access to information by checking for understanding at each stage in the process.

In family work, a standard question asked of the expert is to assess parental insight into the concerns of professionals relating to matters before the court. This can be extremely challenging if the clients have been exposed to factors listed above. Furthermore, without access to appropriate specialist expert opinion, many deaf parents are assessed from a deficiency perspective despite there being no empirical evidence to suggest that deaf parenting is inferior to hearing parenting. We suggest that to increase access to information, reports need to be made accessible to deaf clients in a format they can readily access and understand.

How should things be interpreted?

Use of an SLI unfortunately will not solve all challenges presented when working with deaf clients. There is wide variation in deaf people’s fluency in sign language and this often requires modification on the part of the interpreter to use the appropriate ‘register’ of language. That is to ensure that the concept communicated in one language is communicated as the same concept in another language. In turn, SLI’s would not translate sign into word directly and vice versa, instead a holistic interpretation of the message is provided to retain meaning (Napier & Cornes, 2004). As discussed in part one, a deaf relay may also be required to support communication and understanding for deaf people with minimal language skills.

If a statement is taken from a deaf person with a learning difficulty or disability (LDD), or from a deaf child, additional special considerations should be taken into account. These include:

  • Age;
  • Ability to communicate emotional states such as anger, anxiety, depression etc; and
  • Communication needs.

It is advised that under these circumstances the consistent use of the same SLI and deaf relays are used to achieve greater clarity, accuracy and to establish a clearer timeline of events. A proposed interpreting model for the best practice interview for a deaf person with an LDD would be:

1. The solicitor asks a question;2. The SLI interprets the question into BSL to the deaf relay;3. The deaf relay signs the questions to the client in an appropriate language register to suit the client’s conceptual understanding and communication needs;4. The deaf client answers questions in sign;5. The deaf relay signs the response in BSL to the SLI;6. The SLI voices-over the response;7. The solicitor transcribes spoken English to written English;8. The SLI and deaf relay check the written English statement and make modifications to account for interpreting error.

It is advised that this process continues for no longer than an hour and half and that the deaf client is given regular ‘eye breaks’. This is necessary for signers as they have to concentrate on signing and non-verbal cues such as eye-gaze, body posture and lip patterns, all of which can be fatiguing.


1. Consistent use of appropriately qualified, registered and experienced sign language interpreters: registered SLI’s can be found at the NRCPD website.

2. Use of deaf relays for individuals with minimal language skills or LDD or for those with strong regional dialects.

3. Translation of important information and reports and vital documents into BSL onto DVD or in person.

Dr Andrew Cornes , Dr Sue O'Rourke and Dr Amy Izycky are all chartered psychologists with deafness as a clinical specialism