British Sign Language Interpretation in the Court of Protection

By Tony Evans – 14th July 2020

Deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) are entitled to an interpreter in court.  But what does an interpreter do? What don’t they do? Who needs an interpreter and who does the job?

I am a registered interpreter with the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deaf/blind people (NRCPD). Registration is proof of qualifications, ongoing CPD, a commitment to a code of conduct/ethical principles and accountability through a robust complaints procedure. Unfortunately, it is not compulsory to register and the title of ‘interpreter’ is not protected. Thankfully, the Ministry of Justice is committed to only using Registered Interpreters.

My work experience over nearly 30 years is very varied including the courts, the police, theatre, local government, Social Services, mental health services, funerals, and probation meetings.  It has not been unknown for me to do High Court one day and pantomime the next day. One judge actually said, “Not much difference I imagine!”.

In general terms, an interpreter works in two languages to allow parties to communicate effectively. (In my case, my first language is English and my second is BSL. For some of my colleagues, they have grown up in a Deaf family with BSL as their first language and English as their second.) Interpreters are not there ‘for’ the Deaf person. They are there because the parties do not all use the same language.

There are many styles of interpreting, some styles (or models) suit particular interpreters, clients, assignments better than others. The underlying principle though, is that we facilitate communication. When we work, we are not ‘helpers’ (though we may be helpful) or ‘friends’ (though we may be friendly). We need to be strictly impartial and there are times when we need to be compassionate. Importantly, we must always work within our skill set and be willing to declare if we feel someone else would be better suited for the assignment. Often (normally for court work) we work in pairs to support each other, improve accuracy and avoid fatigue.

In the Court of Protection, the interpreter(s) can sometimes be seen as an intermediary – we are not. If somebody has a linguistic barrier to access, but they are judged to have capacity, they can make their own decisions, then all parties need an interpreter to allow communication to happen smoothly. If ‘P’ is deaf, uses sign language but also has other issues regarding making decisions and understanding the proceedings etc. then they may require an intermediary: a person with a unique set of skills who should be involved at various stages of the proceedings and will have assessed the communication abilities of the vulnerable person they are working with.  The interpreter is not the intermediary. The interpreter is the access tool, and throughout the course of events, different interpreters may be used depending on availability. It is essential that an intermediary working with a Deaf client should understand sign language. How else can they assess P’s understanding? They are uncommon – but Deaf Registered Intermediaries do exist.

There’s often an assumption that if someone is d/Deaf they’re “non-verbal” and they’re seen at a lower end of capacity, which is obviously not always the case.  Equally, it can be assumed that the presence of an interpreter will ‘solve’ any communication issues. Early on in my career I remember thinking, “I’ve got to make this person sound lucid” and I’d make sentences out of the few signs that the person produced. In hindsight, I realise that the impression I gave the Court was wrong. Now, if I find myself in this situation, I will say to Courts, “I will give you what I am given”. Sometimes that is, “Tree. Swimming pool. Tomorrow” which may not make a lot of sense, but that’s what they’re giving me. As interpreters, it’s easy to feel a responsibility to make the signs we see make sense. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense, and we can do more harm by making it make sense.

The court environment can be difficult, and the current pandemic has created some extra complexities. Working via video link can always cause problems, but add to that the need for parties to see a BSL interpreter and limitations regarding who can see who on the screen and there is potential for a breakdown in communication.

That said, I did a remote hearing recently.  I joined via Skype but also had a separate platform running so that the deaf person (P) could see me and I could see them.  P was sitting in their kitchen at home, looking at me on a telephone screen. P’s parents were there, and they had the computer screen up with Skype so they could see the court. The court – through Mum and Dad’s computer screen – could see P, looking at me on the phone, and they could see P nodding at the right time and things like this: so there was a nice connect without it being overwhelming. All parties felt reassured that communication was occurring smoothly. I think this situation was actually better for P than it would have been going to court. When the Skype call finished and the court shut it down, we were still in touch via phone; so I was able to say to P, “Are you clear about what’s happening? Was everything okay with the communication?”, with the intermediary present at ‘their end’.  So that little debrief session took place in the same way as it would in person as you walk out of the court.  Those brief interactions – the human niceties, are often lost in a video relay world.

It’s really important to point out that there was an intermediary for P as well.    

As interpreters, we should never be seen as intermediaries. (Did I mention that already?) That said, we should not just sign what we hear with the view that if people don’t understand, that’s not our problem. It really is our problem.  It really should be our problem. Our job, our goal, our reason for being there is to enable good communication. If that can’t be achieved for some reason, we have a duty to inform the court. An intermediary can and should meet P before things come to court. They could produce a report regarding good communication strategies for the court and those involved. All of this should contribute to smooth communication. It’s very much a team effort. The common goal is clear communication and best understanding. There may be times when I say to the intermediary “Can I just check: if I explain it like this, … will that be better?” or ask for clarification regarding P’s understanding of something. 

One of my worries regarding remote court interpreting is that interpreters are booked via agencies and just join the court with no preparation Often there is no information on the background of the case or the people involved. There is sometimes good reason for this (confidentiality, avoiding bias)  and it must be handled carefully, but as professionals we know what we need and it would be nice to think that we could ask an agency or have a pre-hearing meeting to discuss any issues.

In these ‘new normal’ times, there is less chance of the court using a local interpreter, so it is more likely that the interpreter doesn’t know P, is booked by an agency that doesn’t know P or the interpreter, and you end up with a very sterile clinical procedure, where somebody’s just signing at a person via a screen, not something they’re used to, and the court maybe can’t see the deaf person or the deaf person can’t see the court.  Remote hearings really do need extra care, as compared with the in-person interpreting that we’re used to. I implore lawyers, intermediaries, agencies and interpreters to work together in the best interests of those concerned in a hearing.

Anthony (Tony) Evans is a British Sign Language/English Interpreter who works from his home near Cardiff. Tony tweets @Dukevfr


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