The right to an interpreter in a medical setting

08 November 2021

Treatment providers within the UK have a statutory and moral responsibility to patients to ensure that services are accessible to all. If you have a hospital appointment and feel you need the assistance of an interpreter, you should request it.

In the most recent UK Census of 2011, 7.7% of the population stated that English or Welsh was not their main language, including 1.3% who were unable to speak English well and 0.3% who were unable to speak English at all.

Polish was the most commonly spoken language after English, with 546,000 speakers, followed by Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujrati.

There are no data available on what percentage of the UK population consider they sufficiently understand complex medical language when discussing health conditions but it is vital that people are given as much assistance as possible to understand what is happening to them and why, in order to give informed consent for treatment.

General Medical Council guidance states that “all possible efforts” must be made to ensure effective communication with patients. This includes arrangements to meet patients’ communication needs in languages other than English.

A professional interpreter is always preferable, as they provide a degree of assurance around quality, accuracy and confidentiality.

It can be impossible for a patient to make significant and informed decisions when they don’t understand what is being explained to them.

The obligation on treatment providers

Treatment providers within the UK have a statutory and moral responsibility to patients and the public to ensure that the services they provide are equally and easily accessible to all sections of the communities they serve.

A 2018 NHS guidance document states that not being able to communicate well with health professionals in primary care can impact on health outcomes, increase the frequency of missed appointments, and reduce the effectiveness of consultations and the patient experience.

If you or a family member have a hospital appointment and you feel the need for the assistance of an interpreter, you should request the service.

Arshid Mahmood, a paralegal who speaks Urdu and Punjabi and assists Susan Prior, partner at Shoosmiths’ Thames Valley office in Reading, says:

“Prevention is most definitely better than cure. If you feel that you or your family need a better understanding of your condition and the decisions you need to make, you should request the assistance of an interpreter who has received training to explain medical terminology to patients.”

Susan Prior, who has assisted a number of clients who are unable to speak English, speaks of how she was able to assist an East African client:

“This client was not only having to deal with the loss of his wife, who had struggled with the language barrier whilst receiving hospital treatment, but now had to ensure that he properly understood the legal terms and processes. We engaged an interpreter who would not only assist with translation but who also understood the importance of privacy within our client’s culture. This was essential for the proper running of the claim and was of huge assistance and reassurance to our client, as well as benefitting the outcome.”

We are currently investigating a claim where, to assist with our investigations, we have obtained evidence from an expert who is able to speak the same language as that spoken by our client. Where there is a need, we will arrange for a qualified interpreter to join expert and legal appointments.

Our clients will always be at the centre of everything we do.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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