We all have occasions when we need to deal with the police. Perhaps your car has been stolen and you have to report it; or perhaps you have witnessed a mugging and you have been called to the police station to be interviewed and provide a witness statement. Or perhaps you have been accused of shoplifting and the security guard has detained you in the back room until the police arrive.
Interacting with the police can be stressful, regardless of whether you are a witness, a victim or a culprit. Most of us have one very useful advantage, however: we can hear. Anyone who is deaf and has dealt with the police may have found communication a major problem. Too often, the forces in the UK and elsewhere in Europe struggle to provide sign language interpreters at short notice or even to understand the needs of deaf people. It hampers their access to justice and needs to be addressed urgently.
The first thing to make clear is that we are talking about quite a substantial number of people. The European Union of the Deaf estimates there are approximately a million deaf sign language users in Europe. In the UK, there are estimated to be approximately 70,000 deaf people who use British Sign Language as their first or preferred language.
This is a linguistic and cultural minority group with its own accepted norms of behaviour. And most people probably don’t realise that deaf people use different sign languages in every country around the world. They identify one another on that basis in the same way that a British person might identify a German or Spaniard through the way they talk.
When it comes to the justice system as a whole, deaf people’s right to interpreters has increasingly been recognised – even if this is typically enshrined in disability discrimination law rather than laws to protect cultural minorities. But while there are now established systems for providing interpreters in courts and tribunals, and clear guidelines on booking them for police interviews and solicitor consultations in the UK and some other countries across Europe, researchers have repeatedly found that deaf people encounter barriers.
The issues are often to do with people in the justice system not being aware of the need to book interpreters to ensure that deaf people can communicate. This can usually be resolved in time for court cases or for courses in prison, but what happens in police encounters at short notice?
There are reports of police misreading a deaf person’s attempts to communicate. On some occasions, deaf people have had to wait many hours before an interpreter can be found and they can be interviewed by police.
There are recurring cases of people giving witness statements without an interpreter (or with an unqualified person). The statement is then admitted as evidence in court, and the deaf person doesn’t understand the process they have been involved in or the consequences of signing the statement. As the police interview is the first point of contact in a legal process, it is essential that people understand their rights and the process. This can’t happen for deaf people if they don’t have a professional qualified interpreter in the interview.
To better understand the problem in police settings and address the barriers, I have been collaborating with a team of international specialists for the past three years. The JUSTISIGNS project includes seven universities and sign language professional bodies from the UK, Switzerland, Belgium and Ireland.
We found that there is no uniform approach across Europe to training or certifying legal sign language interpreters or making such people available for deaf people in the justice system. Through a series of focus groups and interviews with police officers, deaf people and interpreters in the four countries, our findings included:
Police officers are unaware that sign-language users need to have an interpreter present as they cannot necessarily lipread or write notes; and are unclear on the qualifications or level of expertise required of sign language interpreters. There are no clear guidelines for how interpreters and police can work together;
Some police forces have policies to guide officers when it comes to interviewing deaf suspects/witnesses/victims – in the UK, some forces have begun to develop online videos for example – but police officers do not always know about best practice;
There are not enough interpreters available at short notice to meet recommendations that only qualified and experienced practitioners be used in the legal system;
Though some interpreters have received legal training, interpreters are often nervous of working in police interviews in case they get called as a witness in a later court case;
There is a lack of established legal terminology in British Sign Language and other sign languages.
On the back of this evidence, JUSTISIGNS held masterclasses and training workshops for police officers and interpreters in the partner countries; and events and meetings to inform deaf people and other relevant organisations and professionals of the project. In the UK, it helped develop best practice guidelines on legal interpreting and worked with Police Scotland on a British Sign Language translation of the Scottish law caution and an explanation of what it means.
The hope is that in years to come, deaf people will be able to deal with the police in unexpected situations without any disadvantage. That is certainly what they are entitled to expect.