Victims of crime wrongly arrested due to ‘huge gaps’ in language support

Huge gaps in language support for victims of crime who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL) is leading to many being wrongfully arrested when trying to get help from the police, according to the charity Victim Support.

Mar 15, 2022
By Paul Jacques
Diana Fawcett, chief executive at Victim Support

A new report published on Tuesday (March 15), Language barriers in the criminal justice system, found victims who speak ESL often struggled to communicate important information to law enforcement and were not given the language support they needed during crucial encounters with the criminal justice system.

In one example, an alleged perpetrator who spoke English as a first language was able to interrupt conversations between the victim and police, causing confusion, and resulting in the victim being mistakenly arrested for the crime she was trying to report. Victim Support say this is a particularly concerning experience, among the ESL victims it supports.

Diana Fawcett, chief executive at Victim Support, said: “Our research shows that language services for victims are woefully inconsistent. In the worst cases, victims are having their request for language support denied, while other times they are left to struggle because it is judged they can manage without.

“This simply has to change. The Victims’ Code sets out victims’ entitlements – but too often rights that exist on paper do not exist in reality. The upcoming Victims’ Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to enshrine the fair and compassionate treatment of victims in law, ensuring that those who speak English as a second language are treated with humanity, and get the justice they deserve.”

The right to free language support when reporting a crime or being interviewed by the police is stipulated in the Victims’ Code of Practice – which sets out how victims should be treated during interactions with the criminal justice system. However, the research found this right is not always being upheld.

The research, carried out by Victim Support, the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, the Centre for Justice Innovation and funded by the charity The Bell Foundation, found that language services were “patchy and not always offered”, with staff lacking the training and resources to properly support ESL speakers.

Among victims, this led to inaccurate statements being taken, deteriorating trust in the police and, in extreme cases, mistaken arrests.

While police officers were broadly aware of victims’ rights to language support, time pressures and limited resources meant they were not always met, with some officers also worrying that offering support would offend the victim, said the report.

It added: “Decisions about whether to offer language services were often ad hoc, left largely to the judgment of individual officers, rather than being informed by clear procedures established and enforced by leadership.”

The research found failings in language services was a particular concern for violent crimes affecting women, who may be experiencing domestic abuse, potentially even having their immigration status tied to a violent partner.

Analysis by Victim Support of 750 cases where the charity supported victims who spoke ESL found that:

  • The majority involved women who had been victims of violent crime;
  • Female victims made up 71 per cent, compared with 29 per cent who were male; and
  • Violence (with or without injury) was the most frequently experienced crime by victims who speak ESL, accounting for 60 per cent.

The report also found interpreters used by the police and prosecution were not necessarily specialised in the language of the criminal justice system, which is “complex, laden with jargon and, at times impenetrable”, even for members of the public who speak English as a first language.

The interpreters provided sometimes lacked the specialist language needed to facilitate full and nuanced communication between police and victims, which was a particular concern in domestic abuse, sexual violence and rape cases.

There was also a gap in cultural understanding, where some words, particularly those referring to domestic abuse and sexual violence, do not exist or are considered taboo in certain cultures and languages.

The organisations say it is crucial for police officers and those working on the front line with victims, witnesses and offenders to be provided with interpreters who are trained in the workings and vocabulary of the criminal justice system.

They are calling for the Government to strengthen victims’ rights to language support in the upcoming Victims’ Bill, expected later this year.

As well as the problems faced by victims, the report found that ESL speakers across the spectrum, from witnesses to defendants and detainees were being denied access to services and support, including rehabilitative initiatives.

Diana Sutton, director of The Bell Foundation said: “This research provides evidence of what we have known for many years – that facing a language barrier can severely impact on someone’s engagement with the criminal justice system in a way that isolates, disadvantages and disempowers those who speak ESL.

“As well as enshrining the right to understand and be understood in law in the upcoming Victims Bill, agencies across the criminal justice system need to work hard to upskill their staff and break down language and cultural barriers.”

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