We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

Drastic shortage of interpreters stymies legislation – report

16 Jan 2023 / human rights Print

Report: drastic interpreter shortage stymies legislation

More needs to be done to ensure that Irish Sign Language (ISL) users are supported in accessing their statutory entitlements through their preferred language, according to the first report on the implementation of the Irish Sign Language Act 

The report says that a lack of interpreters or difficulty accessing interpreters was the most common barrier to implementation mentioned by public bodies.

The legislation sets out that public bodies "shall do all that is reasonable" to provide interpreters; however the definition of this is left open, the report points out.

'Cost' loophole

"Based on responses from the public consultation, it appears the wording facilitates public bodies to avoid providing ISL interpretation based on costs," it adds.

The Irish Sign Language Act was enacted on 24 December 2017, and commenced on 23 December 2020.

Its purpose is to give ISL official recognition as a language in Ireland, separate and independent from disability legislation, giving the deaf community the right to use ISL as their native language, and to use, develop, and preserve it.

Section 10 of the act places an obligation on the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to report on its operation at intervals.

How many use ISL?

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) recorded in its 2016 census that 4,226 people were Irish Sign Language users at home.

The Irish Deaf Society states that a further estimated 40,000 communicate in ISL (such as family, friends, co-workers). The Department of Education has recorded 77 school-aged children whose primary language is ISL.

The Irish Deaf Society states that the deaf community sees itself as a linguistic and cultural minority.

The legislation places a duty on all public bodies to provide ISL speakers with free interpretation when availing of, or seeking to access, statutory entitlements and services. In addition, it provides for specific duties and obligations in the areas of legal proceedings, educational provision, and broadcasting.

Unaccredited interpreters

Courts and other public bodies must not engage an unaccredited interpreter under the legislation. The quality of interpreters was, however, raised as an ongoing issue in the consultation.

"Many instances were discussed – including not using accredited interpreters in favour of cheaper and lower-quality services, using contracted interpreting agencies who may not check qualifications, inability to source an accredited interpreter due to limited supply of interpreters or limited time to acquire an interpreter, using staff with minimal levels of ISL, and staff suggesting ISL users bring hearing family members (including children) to interpret," the report states.

86 accredited interpreters

The Register of Irish Sign Language Interpreters (RISLI) currently has 86 interpreters accredited. This is in contrast with Finland, which has 503 for a similar number of users.

The Department of Education noted that competent ISL interpreters outside Dublin can struggle to access courses to have their skills accredited.

One public body raised concerns as to whether the Irish Sign Language Act should make further comment on the scheme's ability to act on complaints, and remove interpreters from the register if necessary.

The shortage in supply will worsen in any attempt to beef up legal compliance, the report points out. "Urgent action on increasing the number of accredited ISL interpreters is, therefore, critical to facilitate full implementation of the ISL Act," the report states.

Fair hearing in courts

Courts generally, but not always, ensure that each party is provided with their own interpreter, according to the report. "Each party should be allocated their own interpreter to ensure a fair hearing," it adds.

While family courts provide interpreters for almost all proceedings, there have been issues with ISL interpretation provision in the High Court and the Coroner's Court. Implementation differs, also, between criminal and civil courts. 

Feedback indicates that free interpretation has been consistently provided in the criminal courts, but not in other courts.

Some ISL users felt at a disadvantage when appearing in court, such as by being provided with an unwilling or unaccredited interpreter whose knowledge of specific legal terminology is unknown.

Judicial awareness issues

The National Deaf Association commented that improved awareness may be needed among some members of the judiciary regarding ISL and its role in ensuring a fair trial.

Prior to the commencement of the act, it has been a matter for the individual parties to the case to organise, hire, and pay for their own interpretation.

The Courts Service must be notified of the need for an ISL interpreter for a civil case to provide one. A standard procedure for ISL users or solicitors to provide notification of the need for an ISL interpreter in civil cases has not been published.

The Courts Service indicates that work is currently underway to publish relevant information regarding ISL interpretation procedures online.


Just over one in ten (11%) of respondents specified public bodies that had required them to pay for ISL interpretation in the last three years.

Some organisational stakeholders noted that the issue of payment was a "persistent" area of ​​confusion, with public bodies "often" demonstrating a lack of awareness about their responsibility to cover interpreting costs.

Comments included that "there is a widespread assumption across public bodies that the responsibility and costs of the interpreter is borne by deaf services or the deaf ISL user. There is very little evidence of awareness that the costs should be covered by the relevant Government body."

Half of public bodies that responded to the NDA survey (50%) indicated they were either not aware of the act (31%), or not aware of their responsibilities under the act (20%). Half (49.8%) were aware of both the act and their responsibilities under it.

Not applicable

Almost three in ten public bodies (30%) indicated that they had consistently provided ISL interpretation since January 2021, while 50% indicated the provision of interpretation was 'not applicable' to them.

Clarification of the responsibilities of bodies that are not public-facing would be useful, the report added.

In all, 21% of public bodies stated that they had ring-fenced budgets to allow access to services through ISL, while 38% of public bodies stated that they kept a record of ISL interpretation requests to estimate demand.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland