Translators and interpreters are important in criminal trials to ensure the defendant’s rights. They are also an important link in legal proceedings and investigations: without them, there would not be any hearings of suspects and victims who speak a different language, nor exchange of requests for mutual legal assistance with foreign countries.
In wiretaps in the course of proceedings, the role of interpreters and translators is also often decisive. It is not by chance that in recent weeks, investigators with the Federal Judicial police service in Brussels made anonymous calls to the media on several occasions. Out of fear of not being paid (properly) for their services on weekends, and following austerity in the Justice system, wiretap interpreters tend to show up to the surveillance offices less and less on weekends. Yet criminality does not keep office hours. Since gangs based in Brussels do not limit their field of action to the capital city, the limited use of interpreters for telephone surveillance (for purely budgetary reasons), may also have harmful consequences on the safety of citizens in other provinces.
The figures and objective facts gathered by the Professional Union of Sworn Translators and Interpreters (UPTIA) show that the need for translators and interpreters in criminal proceedings has continued to grow over the past three years:
• Conviction statistics show that in 2014-2016, the number of foreign convicts increased by nearly 30%: in 2016, 38,810 convictions of foreigners were registered (a record number), up from 32,884 in 2015 and 29,885 in 2014. Since 2013, the percentage of non-Belgians among the convicted has come to over 20% annually.
• The figures provided by Minister of Justice Koen Geens, in his response to an MP’s question, show that the number of wire taps has heavily increased over the past three years: 5,707 intercepts in 2014, 6,292 in 2015 and 7,109 in 2016. This represents an increase of nearly 25%.
• Minister of Justice Koen Geens said that he is currently preparing a bill for using particular investigative methods, including wire taps, for fugitive convicts. This will undoubtedly generate additional work for telephone surveillance interpreters.
• On 1 June 2017, the 28 October 2016 act took effect. This act plans to provide foreign suspects, defendants, convicts, and victims, with a translation (into a language that they understand) of the elements of the criminal case which are essential to their right to a defence and to due process. This will generate additional work in terms of urgent translations of arrest warrants, orders, judgements, and decisions.
Given the unquestionable increase in assignments for sworn interpreters and translators, explained by the globalisation of society and criminality, the obvious rise in the number of wire taps, and the new legislation, it is naive for authorities to think that this would be possible without a proportional budget increase. The Professional Union of Sworn Translators and Interpreters (UPTIA) insists, in any case, that the indexing provided for by the law on fees for translators and interpreters in law enforcement is actually applied at the start of the new year.
There has been no new indexing since 2014. This was said to be caused by budgetary restrictions. Article 148 of the General Regulation on court costs for law enforcement matters however clearly stipulates that the sums established on the first of January of each year are linked to the variations of the consumer price index.
Minister Geens says he is aware of the problem, but hasn’t found support from neither the Inspector of Finance nor the Minister for the Budget. UPTIA hopes that the Minister’s recent promise to continue to argue within the government for the indexing provided for by law will yield concrete results in 2018.
Based on the Justice department’s 2018 expense budget, UPTIA has determined that the overall amount for court costs provided for in the 2018 budget has decreased slightly, down to 76.8 million euros. Nevertheless, two years ago, the federal mediator came to the conclusion that there was a structural under-budgeting of court costs. This independent, impartial authority then recommended to release enough financial resources so that court costs could be paid on time.
In 2016, some 106.2 million euros were spent on court costs. The most part was used to settle overdue invoices from telecommunications operators. In 2016, a total amount of 22.9 million euros was paid to translators and interpreters. UPTIA has also found that, in 2018, only an additional amount of 16 million euros will be available for court costs in the provisional anti-terrorism budget. Last year, the budget was still 23.4 million euros. This huge drop of over 30% is highly unfortunate. Indeed, it is undeniable that the use of interpreters for telephone surveillance in the fight against terrorism is crucial, and the need for this form of translation has increased considerably in recent years.
UPTIA has also observed that funds for legal defence can still be found: next year, the budget for legal assistance (public defenders) will substantially increase, reaching 118.6 million euros, representing an increase of 28.5 million euros.
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