Removing Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System: Ensuring Justice and Rehabilitation for EAL Individuals

Emily Giles has recently joined The Bell Foundation to lead the Criminal Justice Programme. Here she shares insights into what this programme consists of, and how it supports those coming into contact with the criminal justice system who also use English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Anyone coming into contact with the criminal justice system – reporting a crime, attending court, or entering prison – could be forgiven for thinking they have landed on another planet or travelled back in time. The language of the system can be altogether archaic. I am a native English speaker and have worked in and around the system for seven years, and I regularly find myself looking up a new acronym, term, or legal process. It can be that much harder for anyone who speaks English as an Additional Language (EAL), for whom there may already be a language barrier to society. This language barrier creates a significant disadvantage for individuals trying to access justice or rehabilitation, which ultimately hinders the criminal justice system’s ability to protect the public. The Bell Foundation’s Criminal Justice Programme seeks to break down this language barrier for individuals in contact with the criminal justice system. We do this by funding research to create an evidence base, providing grants for direct services to victims and those in prison, and using our expertise to influence Government and other policy-makers.

No one really knows the scale of the problem. There is no systematic approach to collecting data on how many victims, witnesses, arrestees, detainees, defendants, or people in prison or on probation speak EAL. What we know is that for those who do, the impacts can be massive. That is why we are working with partners to develop an evidence base as a springboard for better provision and system-wide change. We are funding vital research from the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), Victim Support, and the Centre for Justice Innovation, which builds on the work of our Language for Change research and partnerships. Early findings are beginning to shed light on the extent and nature of the barriers faced.

For victims and witnesses

Victims and witnesses whose first language is not English are entitled to reasonable adjustments such as the use of an interpreter or translator when being interviewed by the police, during court hearings, and after court such as when accessing compensation. Early research findings show that in reality this provision is patchy, and not always up to the job of interpreting complex legal or cultural issues. Police officers are not always trained in when and how to make use of an interpreter. Long waits for interpreters, or there being no interpreters available at all, cause significant delays to an already backlogged courts system. And this drawn-out process, coupled with the potential impact of having an interpreter in the room on a victim’s experience of reporting a crime, mean that victims who use EAL are potentially less willing to engage in the process of justice at all. This not only deprives victims of justice but limits the system’s ability to fulfil its role of keeping the public safe.

For people in prison

For individuals accused or convicted of an offence, especially those in prison, a language barrier can make things much more difficult. Individuals in prison are expected to engage in activities and interventions designed to reduce reoffending and aid their resettlement upon release. They also have to access a range of services while in custody, such as to get healthcare, drug or alcohol support, or support with housing and benefits. For those who use EAL, this can be extremely difficult – you often have to find the right people to speak to, or fill out the right form, and this is challenging with a language barrier and can leave people isolated and vulnerable. There is no systematic approach to dealing with this – we know that many prison and education staff in prisons, particularly English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, are doing what they can to help these vulnerable individuals but generally without any training or guidance. Not engaging with the required activities can harm an individual’s chances of progressing through their sentence, ultimately meaning that we are releasing individuals back into society without having offered them rehabilitation.

What needs to happen?

The criminal justice system is complex, and the needs of people in court who use EAL are not the same as in prison, on probation, or in contact with the police. What fundamentally needs to happen, however, is the same: the issue needs to be recognised. We are working on providing an evidence base and exploring how we can make use of existing tools like the 2021 Census to provide new data estimates, but this is just the start. Victim and witness data, as well as data of those on probation, all needs to be collected and the barriers more thoroughly understood and addressed.

We already have a good understanding of what can help: evaluation from our Language for Change partnerships found that peer support can be very impactful, as well as providing basic resources and tools for assessing ESOL needs upon initial contact with the criminal justice system. We are very excited to be launching our updated ESOL screening tool next month and rolling it out across the prison estate later in the year. Meanwhile our on-going victims partnerships continue to find new and innovative ways to support victims who use EAL with holistic and culturally appropriate approaches. As we build on the evidence and encourage the system to collect more data, we can do more with all our partners to break down the language barrier to accessing justice and rehabilitation.

To find out more about The Bell Foundation's Criminal Justice Programme you can contact Emily: