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Inadequate interpretation still leading to asylum case delays

Over 100 asylum appeal hearings were postponed in 2022 due to problems with interpretation.

Design for Lost for Words with the word Noteworthy on top. To the right, a black man and a white woman face each other in profile. She has headphones on and is speaking. He is looking quizzical.

INTERPRETATION PROBLEMS WERE responsible for 13% of asylum appeal postponements last year.

This impacted over 100 asylum appeal hearings, delaying an already lengthy process for those seeking international protection.

The figures released by the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT) earlier this year show that interpretation issues are the third most common reason for delay, ahead of audio visual issues, despite the fact that the majority of cases are now being heard remotely.

The 13% is an increase from May 2020 when IPAT reported that 11% of hearing postponements were due to interpreter issues and stated that it “will need to reduce” this number.

Issues include interpreters having the wrong dialect, being below standard or being unavailable due to illness or scheduling clashes.

IPAT hears appeals from asylum seekers, also known as international protection applicants, whose cases have been rejected by the International Protection Office. All asylum seekers have a right to interpretation if they require it.

While IPAT says it tries to give as much notice of postponements as possible, “on occasion, hearings have to be postponed on the day of the hearing, for example where no interpreter or no suitable interpreter has been made available”.

Noteworthy requested the postponement figures for this year from the Department of Justice but it was not able to provide overall numbers. However, it did provide figures of the number of delays caused by language problems specifically.

These show that the availability of interpreters is the biggest problem, but there were 19 hearings postponed or adjourned this year due to issues with dialects or language skills.

This was a major issue back in 2019 when it delayed over 40 hearings. However, after a significant drop during the pandemic, numbers have started to rise again in recent years.

Cases already take about 10 months to be decided once they are accepted by IPAT so these issues can leave asylum seekers even longer in limbo.

“The Department is taking all necessary steps to manage the international protection process fairly, efficiently and effectively while ensuring the integrity of Ireland’s rules-based immigration system is maintained,” a spokesperson told Noteworthy.

“We recognise the importance of high quality interpretation and translation to this process.”

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Higher than expected

Mary Phelan, chair of the Irish Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association, was surprised by the 13% figure.

“It’s higher than I expected,” she said. “It would make you wonder why it’s so difficult to get [interpreters for] dialects.”

She added that the figure for delays may not illustrate the true extent of the interpretation problem because “there are cases where they keep going and the interpreters are not really doing a good job”.

“It’s a good illustration of why training is needed,” said Phelan.

If a hearing goes ahead, at risk is a miscarriage of justice if the true facts of an asylum seekers’ case are not understood.

“There’s no quality control,” said Phelan, nor are there independent inspections.

But if it’s postponed it’s traumatic, she said, for those seeking asylum who have to retell their story and then also have to wait for the rescheduled hearing. “And the expense,” she added. “All the people at IPAT and all the people who are paid to be there.”

  • Want to read more? Back in 2021, as part of our LOST FOR WORDS series, Mary Phelan wrote about poor interpretation impacting patients, victims of crime and those seeking asylum. Read here >>

It also leads to delays in a system that is already struggling to accommodate international protection applicants. The average time for asylum applications to be processed is currently 18 months, according to the Department of Justice.

Two Dublin charities are to provide tents and sleeping bags this winter for asylum seekers forced to sleep on the streets because of accommodation shortages.

 No standards full stop

IPAT is not the only body affected by interpretation issues, nor is this a new problem.

The McMahon Report in 2015 found that “provision of good-quality interpretation is essential to safeguard the interests of protection applicants”.

Five years later, in 2020, further examination of the asylum process – this time by the Catherine Day Report – recommended that an accreditation test be introduced by 2023 for interpreters in the international protection process.

This is still not happening, according to Phelan, who said that “there are no standards in Ireland for interpreters full stop. Ireland is not unique, but Ireland is particularly bad.”

A photo of Mary Phelan, a middle aged white woman with short hair, with a quote:

Interpretation services are contracted out to private companies. With no accreditation mechanism in place, the State has little oversight of quality control. This results in quality that “varies significantly” according to the Irish Refugee Council and may introduce further delays when there are contract disputes – as happened in 2018.

People who have been denied asylum have appealed their cases to the High Court over the past number of years on the basis of poor interpretation.

In such a case in 2014, the judge quashed a decision that had led to the refusal of an asylum application by a Kurdish speaking man from Iraq. The asylum seeker claimed that there was an absence of proper interpretation services on the day. In her judgement, Justice Mary Faherty said that, alongside other issues, “an error interpretation” was a possibility and ordered the man’s asylum case to be reassessed.

In a more recent case, reported by the Dublin Inquirer in 2021, a Zimbabwean woman, whose asylum case was rejected, appealed it on the basis of poor interpretation. According to court documents, this case was later struck out.

“Given that interpreters working in International Protection haven’t been trained in how to interpret and have never been assessed, it is highly unlikely that they are all able to interpret competently,” said Phelan.

Lack of formal training can also cause problems for interpreters. Over two years ago, an untrained interpreter with no experience told The Irish Times about how he felt nervous and anxious when sent on his first assignment a half an hour after his ‘two-minute’ job interview.

We asked the Department of Justice whether it had considered implementing interpretation standards, accreditation or quality control measures in interpreting for the international protection process.

A spokesperson said that IPAT uses an interpretation service provider for hearings where necessary and that “any concerns about the quality of interpretation… are brought to the attention of the relevant service provider”.

They also said that interpreters must adhere to Codes of Conduct set by the IPAT and added that “there are arrangements in place for interviewers to provide feedback on interpreters”.

Online solutions possible

For less-widely spoken dialects, which the Justice Department said can cause difficulties in interpretation, there may be online solutions.

A November report on refugees and integration from the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth recommended that international online interpretation services should be used to help solve inequality of access to interpreting across State services.

Phelan agrees that services based abroad are “definitely the way to go for languages where there’s no interpreter available” in Ireland. However, she argues it’s not a solution for substandard interpretation generally.

“Why not professionalise the service for Irish-based interpreters so Irish interpreters can do the work as well?”


An image of text: Lost for Words

Why does Ireland not have any standards or regulations for interpreters?

Design for Lost for Words with the Journalism Fund logo on top

By Alice Chambers of Noteworthy

This project was proposed and part-funded by our readers. It was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe. Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform of The Journal.

This is the first article in our investigative series. Help to fund this project >>