The EU has been building a common area of justice for the past ten years. Much has been done to catch criminals who seek to evade justice by skipping from one EU Member State to another and to collaborate on tackling organised crime and terrorism. The most notable example of police cooperation is the European Arrest Warrant which allows for the transfer of a person from his home country to another EU State to stand trial.
But very little has been done up to now to protect the rights of those accused of crimes in a country where they don’t understand the language or the legal system. After years of delay, the EU is finally taking a step in this direction through negotiations between EU states and MEPs on a directive on the right to interpretation and to translation in criminal proceedings.
But this endeavour may be undermined and human rights endangered if EU Member States resist binding measures on the qualification, registration and training of court interpreters and translators. Lawyers, judges and public prosecutors should be aware that European free movement rights require a new approach to fair trials, if the EU wants to live up to its commitments under the Human Rights Convention.
While surveys indicate that judges regard the linguistic services provided by unqualified court interpreters as an obstacle to working effectively in court, the old belief that simply “knowing two languages is enough” to master the intricacies of court proceedings is still widespread. In fact what is needed is considerable interpreting/translating expertise, knowledge of legal terminology and understanding of the kind of ethical approach which will contribute towards helping litigants obtain a just court decision.
Judicial authorities unfortunately often have a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach regarding the need for linguistic assistance. What they forget is that an absence of professional interpretation or translation may well cause expensive delays in proceedings and miscarriages of justice.
The EU’s ‘E-Justice’ web portal will require legal interpreting and translating services of a comparable standard and quality across the EU.
The Commission, Council and European Parliament, as they embark on negotiations, should therefore make every effort to ensure that the proposed Directive creates this added value for EU citizens. The current situation in Europe, in which professional language assistance in judicial settings is still mostly the exception rather than the rule, is not acceptable.
Liese Katschinka, President of EULITA
European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association
16 April 2010