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.

Helga Stevens

helgastevens.jpgSee Hear on Saturday 28 January 2006, at 12pm on BBC 2, carries a profile of Helga Stevens. Their website says:

Helga Stevens is a woman of many talents – barrister, member of the Flemish Parliament, wife and mother. She’s also a prominent member of the European Union of the Deaf. She’s achieved a lot in her young life, but there’s more to come. In our extended profile, we find out what makes this extraordinary woman tick.

Request for Tsunami Pro Bono volunteers

Whilst this does not relate specifically to Deaf issues, unless unfortunately Deaf people have been caught up in this disaster, the request is being published here to to the disaster’s magnitude and the fact that it probably preoccupied all our thoughts after Christmas and into the New Year.

On the thoughts of the possibility of Deaf people being caught up in this, surely it makes sense for the Solicitors Pro Bono Group to collect specific skills solicitors have to use when matching with potential clients. The obvious one that springs to mind is additional languages used, which includes BSL.

In terms of Pro Bono work, the usual complication surrounds the willingness for a firm to pay for interpreting support (as it is already donating its services for free) and meeting its legal obligation around this. In theory, one would argue that it is the luck of the draw, and putting oneself forward for such a scheme comes the ‘risk’ of accepting a client who would come under the DDA, whereby reasonable adjustments would need to be made. However it seems, practice is somewhat different.

News over Christmas has naturally been dominated by the events in Asia and the devastating natural disaster. Although different to the September 11th tragedy in New York it may well be the case that the Solicitors Pro Bono Group will receive requests for legal help in the weeks to come as we did following the World Trades Centre attack. In case we do, I would like to have a list of volunteer firms and individual lawyers ready so that we can respond quickly to any requests.

If you are willing to join this list please send your details (name, firm, phone number and area of expertise) to us volunteer @ probonogroup . org . uk** We will then contact you if and when we receive suitable requests for assistance.

Best wishes

Susan Bucknall
Chief Executive – Solicitors Pro Bono Group

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** spaces added for protection against spam robots, these obviously need to be removed when contacting.