BSL users becoming Magistrates (or rather lack of)

In England and Wales, 98% of criminal cases are dealt with by the Magistrates Court, and are heard in front of Magistrates.

Traditionally in the UK it has been said that Deaf people cannot serve as Magistrates, Judges or Jurors because interpreters will not be able to convey the full nusances of a court room. However, great strides have been made in recent years, especially after winning the campaign for BSL recognition (although more work needs to be done on this), and various other initiatives.

A Deaf person is in the process of applying to become a Magistrate, and the latest advice given this week by the Department of Constitution Affairs, to the Justices’ appointment team states:

‘The position of people who are deaf serving as magistrates is analogous to that of people who are deaf serving on a jury. Courts do everything they can to accommodate people with a disability and there is a presumption in favour of people with a disability serving as magistrates. The Magistrates Courts Committee will make any adaptations necessary to the court to enable them to carry out the duties of the office, such as induction loop systems, where the adaptations required are reasonable. However, the present law is that a bench of magistrates must reach its decision in the privacy of its own retiring room free from the presence of anyone else except the Justices’ Clerk, who may to be present to give legal advice only. The presence of a person who is not a magistrate in the retiring room can amount to an irregularity upon which a convicted defendant may challenge his or her conviction. For this reason, it is not possible to permit a person who would need assistance from an interpreter in the retiring room to be a magistrate’.

An ongoing argument, where interpretation of primary legislation is literal and does not recognise interpreters. We will keep this matter updated.

Use of interpreters in the courtroom: a flame war

A frequent argument, at least used in the UK is you cannot possibly be a good lawyer or participate in courtroom proceedings, if you cannot hear.This has been an argument that has been swung for years, in relation to access, especially in terms of jury service until the 13th person issue became the mainstay. The same argument has been swung in terms of Deaf people cannot be magistrates or members of the judiciary.

Consequently, there is sensitivity to issues around whether a Deaf person is able to be a lawyer, and interpreters can be used effectively. The only people who are effectively able to judge this are interpreters themselves, and Deaf people with an experience of using interpreters.

An argument flared up over at Blind Insight relating to this very issue (see comments).

Firstly, it is understood that this is a personal blog and I for one have full respect for Mad. She has inspired me, and I hope her career continues to go from strength to strength.

However, the bone of contention was around this statement:

“my client deserves to have an advocate who can hear and address everything the judges and opposing counsel have to say about his case”

Whilst I accept that Mad prefers audio as her reasonable adjustment in the courtroom and this is what she needs to have her client’s best interests at heart, this statement could have been better worded. After all, wording is meant to be a lawyer’s craft. The statement as it stands implies that lawyers who do use interpreters are giving a second rate service. It implies that via interpreters you somehow miss information, and thus an inferior advocate.

There are further comments relating to this argument in this comment section. Interestingly those lawyers who were affected by this comment, all use interpreters and thus a direct personal experience.

Those people who attacked those speaking out, were all hard of hearing, and none of them use interpreters in the courtroom! is sign language their preferred language and used regularly? This is not about a Deaf vs hard of hearing debate, it is about people not getting issues that Deaf people preferred sign language users face and thus are neither qualified or experienced to pass judgement. This is largely about use of interpreters in the courtroom, and only those who use interpreters are familiar with the issues. In the same way as only Black people are qualified to speak on Black issues, and should a white person pass judgement on racism and declare something was not racist there would be an outcry.

With such issues still raw in the mainstream, it is imperative that assumptions and prejudices are challenged on the surface of access and discrimination that happens. It is nothing more, nothing less, and to bring other arguments such as the difference between two websites, what law school someone went to (what has this got to do with it, I attended a top ranking law school too!), or CIs kind of makes me wonder if people are actually lawyers and can stick to the issue in hand. Where is the clarity, and a focus on the key issue?

Deaf lawyers having to fighting their corner says an awful lot relating to lack of understanding relating to the issues.

What scares me is the same people are meant to be representing sign language users within the American Bar Association. This is truly frightening, and one hopes that US colleagues make their voices heard on this.

Equality Act gains royal assent

17 February 2006 11:47

The Equality Act has gained royal assent, paving the way for a new ‘one-stop shop’ for advice on employers’ and individuals’ rights and duties under discrimination law.

Under the Act, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) will bring together the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission from October 2007.

The Commission for Racial Equality will join in 2009, putting expertise on equality, diversity and human rights all in one place.

The CEHR will be required to produce a regular ‘equality health check’ for the UK and to work with individuals, communities, businesses and public services to find new, more effective ways to combat discrimination.

The Act also introduces a new gender duty, which will require public bodies to take account of the different needs of men and women to ensure equality of opportunity when preparing policies or providing services.

Meg Munn, deputy minister for women and equality, said the Equality Act marked a transformation in the way modern Britain tackles discrimination.

“The CEHR will be a powerful body dedicated to fighting discrimination, prejudice and inequality and promoting fairness for everyone,” she said.

Arguments still remain over whether a single equality Act should be created to support the work of the CEHR.

The public sector is pressing for a single equality Act to bring all the present discrimination law together to ensure that all the groups covered by the CEHR have the same degree of protection from discrimination.

However, the CBI said employers would strongly oppose the creation of a single Act.

Neil Bentley, the CBI’s head of public services and diversity and a member of the CEHR taskforce, said: “Rushing towards a single equality Act could be an attempt to rush through a one-size-fits-all approach, with all rights and duties raised to the highest common denominator.”