The right to translations in criminal trials - the client’s right to understand all material

The right to translations in criminal trials - the client’s right to understand all material

Accurate translations are not just helpful for lawyers and other professionals, they are helpful for the client as well. 

Indeed, not only are they helpful, in criminal prosecutions they are necessary. It is a fundamental principle of our legal system that the accused has the right to a fair trial - that almost goes without saying.

This right is a principle of common law, and is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights: an accused person has the right to "to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him" and " to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court."

While the conduct of a defence is a matter for the accused and their counsel, it is up to the court, as guardians of the 'fairness' of the trial, to be satisfied that the issue of translation and interpretation is handled in a satisfactory manner.[1]

How do these rights work in practice?

The right to be informed of the nature of the charges against an accused begins at the police station, when the suspect is first detained. Code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984 sets out the responsibilities of the Police to provide adequate translation services during interviews.

This translation/interpretation much be "sufficient to safeguard the fairness of the proceedings, in particular by ensuring that suspected or accused persons have knowledge of the cases against them and are able to exercise their rights of defence". Indeed, the code mandates that a suspect must NOT be interviewed unless a person capable of assisting the suspect is present.

Should the suspect make a statement at this juncture, the interpreter must record it in the language in which it is made, it must be signed and an English translation made later. 

These rules also apply to those with other communication impediments, not just those who are not fluent in English.

If these rules are breached, then the evidence may be excluded from the trial under Section 78 of PACE.


The right of an accused person to have confidentiality between themselves and their counsel extends to communication which must go through an interpreter. Thus, the professional privilege that exists between lawyer and client also binds the interpreter.

Interpreters in the Witness Box

If an accused is interviewed via an interpreter and there is later contention in courts as to what was said, then further evidence will be required from that interpreter. Effectively, the interpreter must be called as a witness in order to help the court arrive at the correct conclusion regarding what was said, as well as what was meant.

Witnesses are also able to give evidence through an interpreter. The prosecution and the defence must arrange for the relevant interpreters to be present. The final decision to allow an interpreter rests with the judge - they are not bound by the witness's assertion that they require one, nor do they need to undertake any specific form of enquiry into the witness's command of English. That said, the judge is bound to adjourn proceedings if an issue regarding quality of translation arises.

Interpreters for Defendants

As above, it is a defendants right to have proceedings relayed to them in a manner they understand. This, however, only applies if they do not speak the language of the court - they cannot elect to have proceedings carried out in a particular manner. In cases where the defendant requires interpreting, it is the Court's responsibility to arrange an interpreter for each accused person. 

There are more detail to the rules surrounding the use of interpreters at court, and this is not intended to be an exhaustive guide. It is, however intended to reaffirm the assistance that a first-class interpreter can provide. First of all, it ensures that the 'client' in criminal cases does not have their right to a fair trial breached. Implicit within that premise is the fact that excellent interpreting and translation gives that client the best possible chance of success!

This article also confines itself largely to criminal law, in scope. There are other areas of law such as employment, Immigration, asylum and so on that will routinely have translation requirements. People who have needs in these areas may be unable to access basic support and assistance because of the language barrier. 

Building Trust

There is also the issue of trust between a law firm and client. Being spoken to in the same language or dialect, possibly by a person from the same region, will undoubtedly build trust between your firm and the client. 

The UK is ever-more multicultural and the most recent census showed that almost 1 million people speak little or no English. Translation services can plug this gap, particularly in areas as sensitive and serious as law. 

If you require interpreting or translation services, our expert linguists can help you. Our skilled team can translate swiftly and accurately, saving you time and money. We offer a fast turnaround, exceptional accuracy, and high-quality service. To discuss your needs with us today, please get in touch.

  [1]Cuscani v United Kingdom 32771/96