ISO 20228:2019 Interpreting services — Legal interpreting — Requirements

Published on 14.07.2022

Industry Standards Demystified – Part 8

By: Monika Popiolek, ATA TCD Newsletter and Blog contributor and ISO/CEN industry standards expert

ISO 20228:2019 specifies the requirements for legal interpreting services The standard’s scope covers basic principles and practices of legal interpreting services, and specifies the competences of legal interpreters. The document describes the various legal settings and provides recommendations for the corresponding interpreting modes. It is applicable to all parties involved in facilitating communication between users of legal services using a spoken or signed language. However, the document focuses mainly on individual legal interpreters and their clients, and the needs and requirements of interpreting service providers (ISPs) are treated as a secondary concern.

As stated in the Introduction, the standardwas developed in response to a worldwide and growing need to accommodate the interpreting needs of persons deprived of liberty, suspects, accused, defendants, plaintiffs, claimants, complainants, witnesses, victims, parties in different legal settings during spoken and signed communication as well as judicial stakeholders such as judges, lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, court administrative staff, notaries as well as private persons requiring interpreting services during communicative events related to the law. It is acknowledged here that the right to legal interpreting services has been enshrined in several international, EU and national documents (see Annex A) and the standard aims to be on a par with such declarations (e.g. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1948 (Articles 1-11), European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, November 1950 (Articles 5 and 6), Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01), CHAPTER III – Articles 20 – 21, CHAPTER VI –Articles 47 – 50, Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Parliament and Council of 20 October 2010 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings etc.

It is stressed in ISO 20228:2019 that legal interpreting needs to be of a sufficiently high quality to ensure equal access to justice to all persons as well as fair trials. However, it is a pity that high quality of interpreting services is not promoted here predominantly as a professional rather than chiefly humanitarian concern. Similarly, the claim that legal interpreting has become established as interpreting services provided by professional interpreters is more along the lines of wishful thinking rather than a prevalent market practice. Nevertheless, this document can certainly contribute to disseminating information about this industry specialization and elevating the status of legal interpreters.

ISO 20228:2019 outlines various codes and standards (protocols) for specific interpreting settings (e.g. for the police or in court) but notes that they vary from country to country, and there are no universally agreed rules or standards for the provision of legal interpreting services. However, Annex A lists numerous national documents that in fact do regulate (i.e. standardize), to a large extent, the provision of such services in many countries – although the scope of such regulations mainly covers the provision of legal interpreting services by authorized sworn interpreters working on behalf of the authorities.

The last paragraph of the Introduction contains a rather unusual statement: “Standards of legal interpreting training and practice vary widely, and are subject to change with remarkable fluidity. In practice, current trends in several countries go in the direction of de-professionalism due to shortage of financial means, absence of specialized training and lack of awareness of the risks of using non-professional legal interpreters.” This opinion seems rather out of context here and there are no references, so even if this is the situation in some country or countries, a requirements standard is not a document where representatives of an industry are encouraged to voice their complaints or offer unsubstantiated opinions on disliked national regulations.

Clause 4 describes the basic principles of legal interpreting in general, the nature of legal interpreting, the work of legal interpreters and the end-users of such services. Clause 5 describes the competences and qualifications of legal interpreters. Clause 6 describes the typical settings with legal interpreting and Clause 7 describes interpreting modes.

Clause 4 includes the first requirement that legal interpreting shall be performed by legal interpreters meeting the requirements of Clause 5 of the standard, following a relevant code of professional ethics and adhering to accepted professional practices, so-called professional interpreting protocols, which can vary by interpreting setting, and by country or region. It also states that:

  • by its very nature, legal interpreting contributes to equal access to the law for all parties by facilitating communication between users of legal services who do not share the same language — either spoken languages or sign languages
  • legal interpreting occurs mainly in different legal settings such as police stations, court rooms, lawyer’s offices, prisons, etc. (Annex B includes a non-exhaustive list of the different settings);
  • legal interpreting can involve the transfer of signed, verbal and/or non-verbal messages in real time usually in both directions;
  • legal interpreting takes place between at least three participants:

1) a user of a language other than the language of service who needs to communicate with a speaker of the language of service;

2) a user of the language of service who needs to communicate with a speaker of a language other than the language of service; and

3) a legal interpreter.

For the purposes of the standard, a professional legal interpreter is an individual who meets the requirements of Clause 5. Clause 5 describes the competences of a legal interpreter in terms of general, domain, linguistic, interpreting, intercultural, interpersonal and technical competences.

Clause 5.8 covers required legal interpreting qualifications and states that legal interpreters shall keep on file and produce on request evidence that attests to their qualifications:

a) a recognized degree in legal interpreting from an institution of higher education; or

b) a degree in interpreting, linguistics, or language studies which includes significant interpreting training from an institution of higher education; or

c) a recognized degree in any other field from an institution of post-secondary education and a state examination in interpreting, or in languages plus proof of their interpreting competence; or

d) an official authorization/diploma in legal interpreting.

If in exceptional circumstances the requirement for qualifications listed under a), b), c) or d) cannot be met, for example for languages for which no or only a few qualified interpreters are available to provide interpreting services, interpreters shall keep on file and produce on request documentation providing evidence of recent interpreting experience in the language and of continuing professional development.

The Note to this section stipulates that “Evidence of interpreting qualifications is documented in some countries by at least 2 years of interpreting or a minimum of 800 hours of interpreting.”

Clause 5 also offers some basic requirements and recommendations regarding continuing training/education for legal interpreters and authorization as legal interpreter.

Apart from the requirements, recommendations and background information, ISO 20228 defines some key legal interpreting terms, such as ‘legal interpreter’, ‘legal interpreting’, relay interpreting”, “communicative event”, “authorization” etc., and this information is an important industry resource in itself, even if some of these definitions have been updated and improved since the publication of this standard.

There is in fact an interesting conundrum here in terms of some basic definitions. In the Introduction ISO 20228:2019 states incorrectly that legal interpreting is distinct from legal translation because it “involves the communication of spoken or signed messages in real time”. This is clearly inconsistent with the standardized ISO definitions of translation and interpreting which state that that ‘translation’ is “aset of processes to render source language content into target language content in written form” [ISO 17100:2015, ISO 20771:2020] while ‘interpreting’ (aka interpretation) is “the rendering spoken or signed information from a source language to a target language in oral or signed form, conveying both the language register and meaning of the source language content” [ISO 18841:2018, ISO 20539]. This distinction was explained quite well in ISO 21998:2020, which stated that translation involves the rendering of various forms of content into another language in written form, requiring a process and the allocation of a certain period of time for the task, while interpreting involves rendering spoken or signed messages from one language to another, either face-to-face or via distance interpreting.

So, the difference between translation and interpreting obviously hinges on the ‘form’ and not the ‘time’. Furthermore, if we apply the same logic that was used in ISO 20771:2020 (Legal translation – Requirements), then legal interpreting is an activity within the field of law or legal specialization performed by a legal interpreter, rather than “interpreting at communicative settings related to the law” (as proposed by ISO 20228:2019 and ISO 18841:2018). It seems quite obvious that this definition hinges on ‘who’ does ‘what’, rather than on the activity being performed in a specific setting. Otherwise one could argue that by this faulty definition any sort of interpreting taking place in a court house should be treated as legal interpreting, even if it is just a guided tour for foreign law students.

Restrictions in the application of this standard are as follows:

  1. the standard does not apply to legal translation services;
  2. the standard acknowledges the role of institutional Interpreting Service Providers (ISPs) it is difficult to see how they could certify against this standard because the ISP’s process is not sufficiently mapped here to allow ISPs to demonstrate conformity of their services to this document and their capability to maintain a level of quality in legal interpreting services that will meet the client’s and other applicable specifications;
  3. the standard could be used for the purpose of certification of individual legal interpreters but the certification of individuals is a complex process governed by different regulations and rules so certification of individuals under this standard may not be possible at this time.

So, as opposed to ISO 20771 (Legal translation – Requirements) which is a good certification document for any type of legal translation service providers, ISO 20228:2019 is basically an industry resource that legalinterpreters and their clients can generally use it as a source of information and benchmark for best practice. It needs to be noted that ISO 18841:2018 is a generalist interpreting standard while ISO 20228:2019 was developed as a specialist standard which is complementary to ISO 18841 (Interpreting services — General requirements and recommendations) and ISO 20771 (Legal translation — Requirements).


Author information: Monika Popiolek has an MA in English, an Executive MBA and is a graduate of a PhD Management Programme. She has been a specialist translator and interpreter for over thirty years and is also an authorised certified legal translator, CEO of MAart Agency Ltd. since 1991, President of the Polish Association of Translation Companies (PSBT) since 2009, Head of National Delegation and Chair of the ISO TC 37 Mirror Committee at PKN, OASIS, ISO and CEN expert since 2007, member of ATA, and many other organisations. Monika is the author of many publications, member of the editorial board of the JIAL journal (John Benjamins Publishing Company) and has presented at more than 25 international conferences. Her research specializations are: quality management, translation quality assurance, specialist translation and standards (particularly  ISO 17100, ISO 9001, ISO/IEC 82079-1, ISO 27001, ISO 21998). She was one of the editors for the ISO 17100 (Translation services – Requirements), Project Leader for two ISO standards (ISO 21998 and ISO 21999), and is the manager of the ISO TC 37 LinkedIn Industry Standards Group.

You can contact her on LinkedIn: