Justisigns: a European overview of sign language interpreting provision in legal settings.

Author:Napier, Jemina
 
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ARTICLE INFO

Issue: 2016 (2).

This article was published on: 16 Jan, 2017.

Keywords: sign language, deaf people, access, justice, legal interpreting, Europe

ABSTRACT

The Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 establishes common minimum rules for European Union (EU) countries on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings as well as in proceedings for the execution of the European arrest warrant. This provision as well as the right to sign language as a human right reiterated by the EUD in the Brussels Declaration ensure that deaf sign language users can access the justice system, typically through sign language interpreters. There is a growing body of literature that examines sign language interpreting provision and practices in legal contexts in various countries. The common theme in the results of all these studies is the limitations faced by deaf sign language users in gaining access to justice, either through inadequate interpreting provision, poor quality interpreting services, or lack of training, accreditation and standards for legal SLIs. This paper reports on a survey that was developed as part of the Justisigns project to provide an overview of the current status of sign language interpreting in legal settings across Europe to better understand what the training needs of interpreters, and other stakeholders such as police officers and deaf people themselves might be. Drawing on key themes from the European Commission survey on legal interpreting in the EU (Hertog & Van Gucht, 2008) and the survey of ASL legal interpreters in the United States (Roberson, Russell & Shaw, 2011), a questionnaire instrument was developed and delivered through an online survey tool. The findings reveal that there are inconsistencies in how legal sign language interpreting provision occurs across Europe.

INTRODUCTION

Different sign languages are used by deaf people in every country throughout the world (Woll, Sutton-Spence & Elton, 2001). Deaf sign language users are members of a linguistic and cultural minority group and identify with one another on the basis of using the natural sign language of their country and have their own culturally accepted norms of behaviour based on shared experience (Ladd, 2003). The European Union of the Deaf (EUD) estimates there to be approximately 1 million deaf sign language users in Europe (Pabsch, 2014).

Steadily advancing recognition of the linguistic nature of sign languages has led to improvements in their legal status (Timmermans, 2005; Wheatley & Pabsch, 2012), encouraged by various resolutions of the European parliament and the Council of Europe (Wheatley & de Wit, 2014).

Although deaf signers are considered to be members of a linguistic and cultural minority group, the accommodations made to meet their linguistic needs are typically met through legal provisions under disability discrimination law. These provisions ensure that deaf people can access and 'negotiate' the justice system, typically through sign language interpreters (Brunson, 2007).

There is a growing body of literature that examines sign language interpreting (SLI) provision and practices in legal contexts in various countries. The common theme in the results of all these studies is the limitations faced by deaf sign language users in gaining access to justice, either through inadequate interpreting provision, poor quality interpreting services, or lack of training, accreditation and standards for legal sign language interpreters.

The Justisigns project (1) focused on developing training courses for sign language interpreters, legal professionals and deaf sign language users in Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, and the UK, but also across Europe. Another central goal of the project was to collect empirical evidence of the legal SLI provision and needs of stakeholders, in order to have research-informed training materials and resources.

Thus a mixed-methods study was designed to examine the experiences and perceptions deaf sign language users, interpreters and legal professionals through questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, with a view to informing the development of the training courses and other deliverables in the project. The first phase of the project involved a survey of organisations involved with deaf sign language users, including associations that represent deaf sign language users, professional sign language interpreter associations, and sign language interpreter educational institutions across Europe through an online questionnaire instrument, to gain a snapshot of the provision of, and training, assessment, certification and accreditation available to, legal sign language interpreters across Europe. The purpose of the survey was to contextualize the research and future development of training materials.

This paper presents the results of this 'scoping' survey analysis, bringing current concerns to the fore and highlighting the topics that emerge as priorities for research and development in making quality legal SLI in Europe available for deaf sign language users. In sharing these results of this survey in this forum, it is hoped that we will raise awareness of the issues faced by deaf sign language users with respect to law and society, and that legal professionals can have a better understanding of the accommodations needed to ensure that deaf sign language users can have equitable access in legal settings.

  1. European standards for legal interpreting

    There are two relevant European directives to consider in relation to legal interpreting: (1) Directive 2012/29/EU establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and (2) Directive 2010/64/EU on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings (Morgan, 2011). According to Directive 2010/64/EU, the Member States of the European Union are bound to safeguard quality control for all spoken and signed language interpreters in criminal proceedings. In Article Five of the same Directive it is stated that quality control should be carried out through the establishment of a national register of interpreters, but no definitions or guidance is provided on how this should be conducted. The provision of legal interpreting even within many countries in Europe is inconsistent, as Leung (2003) has reported for example in the UK.

    There have been various projects that have focused on promoting access to quality and standards in legal interpreting across the EU (e.g., Hertog, 2001, 2003, 2010), and a comprehensive survey of legal (spoken language) interpreting in Europe was commissioned by the European Commission Directorate General (DG) for Interpretation (Hertog & Van Gucht, 2008). The survey found that more than half of the EU Member States do not have any specific training in legal interpreting, and any training provision tends to be organized at a local level, which is not accessible to interpreters in the rest of the country. It was also found that there is great disparity in the level and quality of legal interpreter training throughout the EU. A follow-up report (European Commission, 2009) gave an overview of recommendations for best practice for legal interpreting in the EU, and stressed that appropriate and consistent training both for new and already practising legal interpreters should be provided across the EU along with an EU Code of Conduct for legal interpreters, and assessment of legal interpreter quality through testing and certification should also be a requirement (Giambruno, 2014). The Commission also recommended that empirical data should be collected as a basis for evidence-based, nationally coordinated and informed planning of legal interpreting.

    Although it can be seen that there are clear recommendations for standards and best practice of legal (spoken language) interpreting across Europe, according to Gallai (2012, p. 144) there is still an "incoherent kaleidoscope of regulations, guidelines and provisions" for legal interpreters in the EU; and nobody yet has conducted a pan-European survey of legal sign language interpreting provision, standards, and training.

  2. Sign language interpreting

    In many ways, SLI is still an emerging profession (Napier, 2011). Development of the SLI profession across Europe has been staggered, as countries lobby for (and achieve) the recognition of sign language, and the subsequent establishment of SLI services and interpreter education programmes to meet demand. Formal training initially took the form of ad hoc short intensive courses, but now many countries have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees available in SLI (de Wit, 2012), although there are still many countries that do not yet have a formal professional association, training or interpreting standards (Napier & Goswell, 2013).

    The profession of SLI has no official status in Europe (de Wit, 2012). There is no standard to determine what it means to be a qualified interpreter, and no quality control of interpretation services through European legislation. Currently there are approximately 7,500 sign language interpreters in nearly 40 European countries (Ibid), but the EUD and the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli) assert that this number desperately needs to be increased (Wheatley & de Wit, 2014).

    3.1 Legal interpreting and interpreter training

    There is a growing body of research on spoken language legal interpreting in the courtroom (e.g., Berk-Seligson, 1990; Hale, 2004; Jacobsen, 2008; Lee, 2009, 2011); in asylum hearings (e.g., Kolb & Pochhacker, 2008; Pollabaeur, 2004; Tillman, 2009); and in police interviews (e.g., Berk-Seligson, 2009; Boser, 2013; Gallai, 2013; Heydon & Lai, 2013; Nakane, 2014). All of these studies confirm the intercultural communication challenges faced in legal settings, in terms of what interpreters need to do to ensure that minority language users have access to...

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