In a decision this week Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division called on the Justice Secretary to intervene in relation to the lack of Legal Aid in a family case which the President felt was disadvantaging the child. The case concerned an application by a father, a convicted sexual offender who was seeking contact with his 7 year old son. The mother of the child opposed the application and expert evidence was involved. Clearly the case was a complex one. It is exactly the sort of case the Ministry of Justice had assured everyone would attract exceptional case funding Legal Aid as clearly it is almost impossible for there to be fair representation of the interests of the mother, the father and the child in circumstances where the parties do not have access to legal advice because their financial circumstances are such that they cannot afford it. There has always been a principle in this country that justice should be open to all and not limited to the affluent.
The President of the Family Division yesterday spoke out about problems caused by the Court Service interpreting contract. We would certainly support the concerns he has expressed as a number of cases in our family department have been affected by the consequences of this contract. When we identify interpreters to assist us with clients who speak English as a second language or limited English we look for someone who has gone through training not just to understand and speak another tongue but also to understand fully the importance of interpreting services which is not as straightforward or simple as might first be thought. It requires quite a level of specialist training in the skills of being an interpreter not just a knowledge of the language being interpreted.
Unfortunately when the Ministry of Justice contracted out the Court Service interpreting for all Court hearings this was done in such a way that the same standards for interpreting services were not imposed and many of the individuals who attend Court might have a knowledge of the language but have limited understanding of the significance or subtleties of the role of an interpreter. Many interpreters who we were aware of and who were involved in Court work before are not now because they simply will not work at the low hourly rate they are being paid and many good interpreters have therefore been lost from the system.
As the President of the Family Division explained in relation to a case he was involved with recently this can have dire consequences for the Court proceedings. You can either find yourself in Court with a situation where the individual is not performing the role of an interpreter fully i.e. they are not directly interpreting word for word what is said or are unintentionally putting a gloss on things. Or as appeared to be the situation in the case the President of the Family Division was dealing with, we simply get a person turning up at Court who isn’t speaking the right language or dialect. For example we have had cases in our department where a hearing has had to be abandoned because although the request did make clear that a particular form of Arabic was needed the individual who arrived spoke Arabic but essentially a different language to the family involved in the case. As the hearing was a fact finding hearing looking at exactly what a child had said and what a parent had overheard, the subtlety in the difference between words such as “hit” or “smack” were key to the case and that subtlety did not exist with an interpreter who didn’t speak the right form of Arabic and the case had to be abandoned. This is obviously a significant waste of public funds and as all four parties were represented and we had in fact gone to Court on two days because interpreters did not attend on the first day at all and we were promised the right interpreters for the second day and so all turned up again in the hope that the hearing could proceed but sadly the wrong interpreters were sent. This seems to be very much an example of exactly the problems the President of the Family Division was talking about and we therefore share his concerns.
The provision of the right interpreters is absolutely key in many cases and the importance of understanding the role is perhaps often misunderstood. It is particularly important in the Family Court where families need to feel fully engaged and supported in the proceedings to have their voice properly and fully heard Without the availability of the right language interpreter with the right skills, that can be seriously compromised.