Reasonable Doubt: Overcoming language barriers to justice

How can you navigate the legal proceedings if you don’t speak English? Kevin Yee offers important pointers in his latest article.

It started with a 911 call.

In June 2010, a 911 dispatcher heard a woman on the line sobbing and asking for help in broken English. She was seeking refuge in an upstairs washroom. The police attended the home and took her to a women’s shelter.

And so the wheels of this case were put in motion.

Last week, the widely reported trial for this matter concluded at the B.C. Supreme Court. Over the course of the trial, a jury listened to the woman’s story. She worked as a caregiver for a couple in Hong Kong and agreed to come with them to Canada in 2008 to look after their children. The jury heard evidence of the caregiver’s living and working conditions: the couple paid her $500 (and later $700) per month to work 16-hour days, seven days each week; they restricted her ability to leave the house or call her family in the Philippines.

After two and a half days of deliberation, the jury found the husband/father guilty of human trafficking. He was found guilty of related violations of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Actas well. His wife was acquitted of similar charges. Now, the employer awaits a sentencing hearing. He faces possible imprisonment.

This case brings to mind many legal issues. There is, of course, the criminal law perspective. From an immigration law standpoint, it is the common tale of someone coming to Canada to work in hopes of eventually sponsoring family members. It also raises employment law issues, such as standards of working conditions and employment contracts.

Regardless of the angle from which you may view this case, it is clear just how big of a role language can play in one’s ability to participate in the justice system. It is, quite simply, daunting to navigate the court system if English is not your first language.

Fortunately, there is legal information available in various languages. The People’s Law School offers information for many legal problems. The BC Legal Services Society (also known as Legal Aid) and Mosaic similarly offer information that you can search by language.

For problems that are heard by a tribunal, there may be legal information in other languages at that tribunal’s website. For example, there are information sheets in various languages on residential tenancy, employment, and human rights.

Offering legal information in other languages is certainly a good start. It educates those who, in all likelihood, are already at risk of having their rights infringed upon.

Legal services are often provided in various languages, and it’s easy to see why law firms promote their multilingual diversity amongst their lawyers, paralegals, and administrative staff. It’s tremendously helpful to communicate with a client in their native tongue. Even if it is only at a very basic level, it is crucial for a lawyer to build a rapport with the client; he or she needs to feel comfortable enough to freely ask (and answer) questions. After all, a better informed client is a more satisfied client.

Finally, I point out that interpreters are often used for trials or hearings. For civil matters (i.e. non-criminal), interpreters are generally not provided by the courts. You are typically expected to make arrangements for your own interpreter. A legal proceeding may be adjourned if an interpreter is needed but not present.

You can find a directory of court-certified interpreters at this website. As unnecessary as it may sound, it’s important to ensure that any interpreter you hire can properly communicate with you. There are often differences in dialects that can create miscommunications. Even with a good interpreter, you should still be careful. As Joseph Fearon pointed out last week, words can still get lost in translation.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.