Breaking the language barrier: access to justice in the New Ireland

AuthorIvana Bacik
PositionReid Professor of Criminal Law, Trinity College Dublin
2007] Breaking the Language Barrier
Access to justice across language and cultural barriers has
increasingly become an issue as Ireland evolves into a more
diverse society. The Courts Service states that 210 languages and
dialects are used in Irish courts1; CSO figures show that one
person in ten in Ireland was born outside this country.2 Both in
criminal and in civil law, in cases involving asylum-seekers,
migrant workers, or any persons for whom English is not a first
language, more and more instances arise in courtrooms across the
country where language is a barrier to effective communication.
Serious concerns can arise in cases where non-professional
interpreting or translation services are provided. In some cases,
miscarriages of justice can even occur due to language
difficulties. This is a particular concern in criminal trials, either
because non-English speaking accused persons are provided with
an inaccurate translation from English into their own language –
or where the evidence of non-English speaking witnesses is
translated inaccurately into English.
At common law, the traditional position has been that access
to an interpreter is at the discretion of the court. But there has
been increasing awareness at international level of the importance
of language in ensuring access to justice, and the right of access
to the courts in a language one understands has become more
universally seen as a human right, as the overview of relevant
Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Trinity College Dublin. This article is based
on an address delivered at the Judicial Studies Institute National Courts
Conference, 17 November 2006. I am grateful to Mary Phelan of Dublin City
University for her helpful comments.
1 “€15m is lost in translation by the courts”, Irish Independent, 20 January
2 Principal CSO Statistics: Persons usually resident and present in the State on
Census Night classified by nationality and age group 2006. Available at

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