Translation is an essential facility for a justice system serving a multi-lingual society. People living in Britain speak many languages. The UK receives visitors from, and has commercial and cultural links with, practically every country on the planet. Almost every advocate will have been in a hearing with an interpreter. After all, a proportion of human activity results in litigation of one kind or another so it is inevitable that there will be parties and witnesses who either don’t understand/speak English or Welsh (which of course has parity of status with English in Welsh courts) or cannot give their best evidence in English or Welsh. I’ll refer to our two official court languages as ‘E/W’ in this article.

A significant presence in our courts

I asked the Ministry of Justice/HM Courts and Tribunals Service (MOJ/HMCTS) how many hearings use interpreters. They required me to submit a formal freedom of information request and took two months to answer (rather than the 20 working days provided for in the Freedom of Information Act 2000). Other countries’ courts services answered questions for this article cheerfully and quickly.

The data supplied by MOJ/HMCTS show that in Q2 2022 (latest data available) there were 43,220 requests for interpreters for court/tribunal hearings in England and Wales, of which 32,392 were granted. Over the whole of 2021, an interpreter was provided for a hearing 114,467 times. Clearly, interpreters have a significant presence in our courts and tribunals.

Some hearing centres will have a greater need for interpreters than others. While awaiting a response to my FOI request, I looked at the Crown Court lists on a random day to get a rough indication. Many Crown Court centres had no interpreter listed, several had interpreters in one or more courtroom, and others had a high number. For example, Birmingham had an interpreter in 5 of 16 sitting courtrooms (31%), and in Canterbury and Isleworth (near to France and Heathrow respectively) interpreters appeared in 50% of their sitting courtrooms.

Consecutive translation

The mode of translation we are most used to seeing in English and Welsh courts is consecutive translation (CT, also known as consecutive interpretation) where a non-E/W speaking person (usually a witness) speaks in their first language, a court-approved interpreter translates their words into E/W, and counsel and judge’s questions are translated from E/W to the required language. We should avoid saying the witness is the person ‘using the interpreter’, which may imply that they are the person putting the court to extra bother and expense. In fact, all participants in the hearing are using the interpreter because everyone in the courtroom needs to be able to hear and understand the evidence. After all, their evidence might be more important for the party calling them than for the witness themselves, and is vital for the judge or jury to resolve the case fairly.

CT is slow. The pauses for speech to be repeated in the other language means that evidence can take twice as long, more or less. If it is a party to the case who does not understand E/W then the entire proceedings could take twice as long.

Simultaneous translation

With simultaneous translation (ST, or simultaneous interpretation), an interpreter translates at the same time (or a few seconds behind) the speaker, and this is relayed through headphones. A significant advantage of ST is that it is quicker than CT. It takes no longer than proceedings without translation and the natural flow of the speaker is less interrupted than it is with CT.

The equipment required are microphones (which many courts already have) and basic headphones (not expensive). It can sometimes help to have the interpreter in a soundproof booth or behind audio shielding so they can hear the voice they are interpreting (via their headphones) without background noise. ST will work for any language using the same physical equipment. You just need to change the interpreter according to the languages required.

ST is not necessarily harder than CT for the interpreter. It certainly requires a high level of linguistic skills to be able to listen and speak in two languages at the same time but there is less need to rely on memory. The interpreter providing CT has to remember and translate chunks of speech at a time, which even with a notepad and pen can be challenging. Whether we use CT or ST, justice requires high quality of interpreters.

This is a well-established method of translation in business, academia, political bodies and courts around the world. One of the first uses of ST was at the Nuremburg Trials after World War Two. There are iconic photographs as the former Nazi leaders listening to ST via headphones as the Allied prosecutors outline the cases against them. The United Nations used ST from its earliest days. It is standard around the world at international institutions. Following the precedent set at Nuremburg, ST is used today at the International Criminal Court and other international courts and tribunals. The European Court of Human Rights uses ST as does the European Court of Justice, which as of 2021 has heard cases originally spoken in all 24 official languages of the European Union.

ST is widely used in international business. London and other major centres of commerce have scores of companies that provide ST permanently or ad hoc for companies holding meetings and calls between people who seek to do business without language barriers.

It is also used in higher education. In the UK this is particularly true in Wales where public bodies have legal obligations to provide services in English and Welsh. Aberystwyth University told me that it uses ST for University council, senate and committee meetings, departmental and one-to-one meetings, and job interviews. ST has been in use at Aberystwyth since the 1960s and is considered part of how things are done. It is facilitated via headsets for in-person meetings and online technology for meetings by remote video.

The Judiciary’s Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB) refers to ST and notes that Caenerfon Crown Court has a dedicated booth for an interpreter. The ETBB suggests that ST is not practical for remote hearings as ‘the video platforms used by judges do not have the technology for simultaneous interpretation although… this may change.’ Welsh courts’ use of ST currently applies to English-Welsh translation and not to any other language. A research paper published by Aberystwyth’s Law and Criminology Department confirms that English-Welsh translation in Welsh courts tends to be by ST but is sometimes by CT.

Further afield

Renee Maria Tremblay, an official at the Supreme Court of Canada, confirmed to me that courts in Canada are obliged to provide ST (called simultaneous interpretation in Canadian courts) at the request of any party and when it is otherwise in the public interest even if not requested by a party. The Supreme Court of Canada provides ST in both English and French in all judicial proceedings. This is for those participating in proceedings and also members of the public watching the webcast of hearings can do so in English or French.

Not all countries with two official languages use ST. Irish courts have received applications from parties for ST but a spokesperson for An tSeirbhís Chúirteanna, the Courts Service in Ireland, told me that, to date, the Irish courts only use CT.

I have had the opportunity to experience ST when I was an elected Member of the European Parliament. The EP uses ST in all 24 official languages for all proceedings whether in plenary, committees or for smaller meetings such as those of political groups. When I took part in debates in Brussels and Strasbourg I could take my seat in the chamber, put on my headphones, set the channel to ‘3 – EN’ and hear in English all the speeches of my fellow MEPs, simultaneous with the speeches being delivered in any of the official languages. It was sometimes easy to forget that speeches were being made in multiple languages, as only English came into my ear. It removed any distinction between English and other languages.

Once I had my headphones on it was often convenient to keep them in place even when a colleague was speaking in English. I would take them off when I rose to speak, but that was not technically necessary. The system worked well and while the European Parliament’s plenary chamber is many times larger than most courtrooms, it was clear to me that the system could easily be replicated in our domestic courts. You can experience the ST for yourself as the EP’s proceedings are webcast in all 24 languages.

The MOJ position on ST

I asked MOJ/HMCTS if they have ever considered or studied the potential for use of ST in English courts and for a wider use than at present in Wales. They said they were unable to answer this enquiry. They also said they ‘hold no information’ on whether ST has ever been used in English courts/tribunals and how often ST (versus CT) is used in Welsh courts/tribunals. Surprisingly, they said ‘interpretation in all venues across England and Wales can be simultaneous or consecutive’ (emphasis added). I have doubts about the accuracy of this statement. Most of the courts and tribunals I attend do not appear to have the basic equipment (headphones) which is essential for ST, let alone sound booths that help ST, which is specifically mentioned in the ETBB as being only at Caernerfon Crown Court.

What’s lost in translation

I would argue that the government should seriously examine introducing ST in English courts and tribunals and widening its use in Wales for a range of languages, other than E/W, that are most commonly used in our courts. It would require a limited investment in equipment (microphones, headphones and ideally interpreter’s booths) and some revision of the register of approved interpreters to ensure that ST is done to the highest standard. It may be of particular value in the hearing centres that most frequently use interpreters.

There is a huge potential saving of court time and money and costs for parties by using ST instead of the much slower CT. Adopting ST should also greatly lessen the hard contrast in court proceedings between E/W and other language speakers. With ST a witness speaking another language will be heard by judges and jurors with something much closer to the same pace and fluency with which they hear E/W speakers, instead of the constant breaks in their evidence for consecutive translation to catch-up that must sometimes blunt the impact or persuasiveness of their words.

It will give other languages, and the people using those languages, something closer to a parity of esteem with E/W speakers in our courts. It will recognise that while E/W are our wonderful national official languages, our system of justice is equally here for everyone, regardless of what languages they speak. Say it in as many languages as you like. Mae’n amser i newid. Il est temps de changer. Czas na zmiany. 

References and further information

MOJ/HMCTS statistics on the use of language interpreter and translation services in courts and tribunals in England and Wales (see table L1 in particular)

Equal Treatment Bench Book (2023)

Remote Hearings Post Covid, Department of Law and Criminology, Aberystwyth University (2022)

Simultaneous translation has been used successfully since the Nuremberg Trials. Pictured above: Members of the Tribunal in the Nuremberg trials test equipment on 18 November 1945. © Northcliffe Collection/ANL/Shutterstock