Non-English speakers who become involved inour legal system are at risk of being sold short.Solicitors should take some responsibility for thisstate of affairs.

Theyneed to recognise thatother players in thecriminal justice systemare already firmly committed to promoting agreater awareness ofthe need to use interpreters and translators whoare properly trained.The case of R v Iqbal Begum [1991] 93 Cr App R96 should have alerted solicitors to the dangersof unqualified interpreters.

Despite having aninterpreter, a solicitor and two barristers, thedefendant purported to plead guilty to murdering her husband.However, there was a comprehensive mismatchof languages between the accused and the interpreter and the conviction was eventually deemed a nullity.The Court of Appeal d eplored the conviction,saying: 'It is beyond the understanding of thiscourt that it did not occur to someone that thereason for her silence was simply because she wasnot being spoken to in a language she understood.'The layperson tends to use the terms 'interpreter' and 'translator' interchangeably.'Interpreting' refers to the process by which thespoken word is transferred from the source language to the target language.'Translating' is the process by which the writtenword is transferred from source to target language.A qualified trained legal interpreter will also beexpected to translate written documents orally,on sight and should be able to undertake writtentranslations of straightforward legal documentsprovided they are not of a technical nature.The Nuffield Interpreter Project has gone someway to alleviating the problem of unqualified interpreters.

Its 'Access to justice' conference,held in 1922, identified the need to move towardsaccreditation.In addition, the Royal Commission on CriminalJustice in 1993, (c.8 para 49 and 50), to whichthe Nuffield project gave evidence, identified a large, unmet need for trained interpreters.As a result of this, thenational register ofpublic service interpreters was published for the first time in January1995 by the Institute of Linguists.Other agencies that are in regular contact withinterpreters and translators have also committedboth resources and training time.

Solicitorsshould draw appropriate lessons from these initiatives if they do not want to be left behind.

TheAssociation of Chief Police Officers recognises itsobligation to provide professional interpreters,and trains its officers to be alert to the need forsuch interpreters.The West Midlands police service has committed itself to an accredited interpreter and translator workforce by the year 2000, and the WestMidlands Probation Service has made a similarcommitment in training their staff.The Birmingham Magistrates' and Crown Courtshave undertaken to engage interpreters andtranslators on the national register whereveravailable.

Such good practice will be promoted viacourt user groups and in particular through thevarious area criminal justice liaison committees.On the criminal justice and legal aid fronts, theLegal Aid Board (LAB) is taking a close interest inthis issue.In April of this year the LAB's national dutysolicitor committee unanimously pushed for theexclusive engagement of interpreters and translators on the national register wherever possiblein all legally aided cases.And, since November 1995 the Law Society'sExpert Witness Directory has listed accreditedinterpreters and translators who feature in thenational register.The Birmingham Law Society has joined theProbation Service, the police, the CrownProsecution Service and the court service to steerthe training course in public service interpreting,run by the East Birmingham College, in the rightdirection.

All these professional groups also provide free tuition on the course itself.It is tempting to regardIqbal Begum as an isolated instance of badpractice on facts neverlikely to be repeated.This would be a gravemistake.

In our courtsthe non-English speaking defendant is often leftin total ignorance of what is being said, until itoccurs to the court clerk, magistrate or judge toaddress him or her directly.In the solicitor's office, it is no longer professional or safe to rely upon a client's family friendor community elder to interpret.

The services of aprofessional interpreter should be sought andnot only in contentious work.For example, if a non-En glish speaking personpresents at a solicitor's office complete with anamateur interpreter andwishes to purchase ahouse or make a will, itis professional practiceto insist on a properlyqualified interpreter or translator.And beware of theestablished client who, on referring an associateto your practice, expects to take on the role ofinterpreter.

Irrespective of any commercial conflicts of interest there are risks.The prudent solicitor will first question theinterpreter to confirm that both the language anddialect match.

There are telltale signs of theuntrained and inadequate interpreter, forinstance, seating arrangements for office andpolice station interviews are a vital indication ofquality.The solicitor should take pains to ensure impartiality and smooth communication by sittingopposite the client and addressing him or her inthe first person throughout.

An interpreter's constant use of the third person exposes a lack oftraining and professionalism.

Also, an interpreter should at no point give advice to the non-Englishspeaking client.In the court room, the skilled interpreter willinterpret consecutively when the defendant isaddressed directly, and then in whispered, simultaneous mode directly into the ear of the defendant for all other aspects of the court proceedings.

If any less of a service is in evidence theunsuitability of the interpreter for this complextask will be revealed.

By insisting on this degreeof professionalism, the solicitor is doing the bestfor the client, and promoting equality within thelaw.Much the same considerations apply to sign-language interpreting.The Council for theAdvancement of Communication Deaf People has been no especially busy in promoting a greater recognition for equality of treatment for this sizeablegroup in the community.Birmingham Council is working towards aninformation pack and training video on this subject, which will shortly be available to criminaljustice agencies.We as a profession owe it to ourselves and ourclients to be at the forefront of change.