Overcoming Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System

Published: Wednesday, July 5th, 2023

In this blog, Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation, highlights the existing language barriers that can prevent people who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL) in the Criminal Justice System from accessing their rights and entitlements. Diana then explores how these barriers can be overcome, signposting some free resources that can be used by practitioners working with speakers of ESL.


Across the UK, 1,041,000 people report that they “do not speak English well” or “at all” (ONS Census, 2021). This equates to roughly one in five of the 5.1 million adults who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL).  

For speakers of ESL with low proficiency in English, accessing services and support in the UK can present challenges. Language barriers – be they a lack of translated material, an absence of appropriately trained staff, or an inability to access suitable interpretation support – mean that some ESL speakers face an uphill struggle to accessing their rights and entitlements. 

Established in 2012, The Bell Foundation aims to change practice, policy and systems for children, adults and communities in the UK disadvantaged through language. 

Since 2020, as part of our Criminal Justice Programme, The Bell Foundation has supported Why me?’s Project Articulate, which seeks to widen access to Restorative Justice for speakers of ESL. In this blog, we look at the language barriers across the Criminal Justice System, and the work of the Foundation to bring about change.  

The evidence base

Nowhere is the importance of understanding and being understood more apparent than in the Criminal Justice System – a system renowned for its complex and technical language, and yet, all too often, a setting where language provision is sorely lacking. 

Last year, we published a research series, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, exploring these issues. The research clearly demonstrated the barriers faced by speakers of ESL – be they victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, or people with convictions – to accessing justice and rehabilitation.

One key finding was the patchy provision of language support. Whilst some practitioners are aware of the rights and entitlements of ESL speakers to interpretation and translation, issues like time and resource pressures mean they are frequently not upheld. 

“As a frontline officer you have got other calls to attend. The interpreter might be able to come out in four hours’ time, but your shift might have finished.” – Police.

This is compounded by the largely monolingual nature of services, with a lack of service information and advice in languages other than English, an absence of routine data collection on individuals’ language needs and a lack of training and guidance for staff. The research found that, although “professional judgement” is commonly used to assess whether someone requires an interpreter, there is no standard approach or guidance on the level of proficiency required to participate effectively in criminal justice processes, leading to uncertainties and a high risk of inconsistency.  

“We don’t, as a probation service, have a standardised way to test the proficiency of someone’s English. Generally speaking, it would be more of an informal way, so I would say, ‘Are you comfortable having your supervision in English?’” – Probation.

These language barriers can limit ESL speakers’ access to help and information such as legal advice, rehabilitative interventions, and various services provided in prison. This mirrors the barriers we know speakers of ESL can also face in accessing Restorative Justice.

Free resources for practitioners

In response to these challenges, we have developed a range of free resources to support practitioners working with speakers of ESL in the Criminal Justice System. 

As part of this research series, we published good practice guidance for practitioners working with victims and witnesses, and for probation service staff and interpreters, as well as a guide to the rights and entitlement of ESL speakers.  

To support the assessment of English language proficiency, we have developed a free ESOL screening tool for use during the prison induction process. The tool is designed to be used by any member of staff to identify individuals with English language needs and refer them for further assessment or support. 

We have also recently launched new language awareness training for victim support staff, and for staff working in prison and probation, providing participants with the knowledge and skills to communicate more effectively with speakers of ESL. 

Through our Criminal Justice Programme, we are working closely with a range of partners, like Why me?, to build and share evidence of what works, and support our work to influence system change, removing the language barriers to accessing justice and rehabilitation.   

For further information on the criminal justice programme and to explore the free resources, visit the Foundation’s website. 


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