Reasonable Doubt: Language barriers and the legal system

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      The court system can be a confusing and wild mess for someone without legal training. This is only made worse by language or cultural barriers.

      For the next few weeks, Reasonable Doubt will be covering language barriers and the legal system.

      There are at least three things to be mindful of when it comes to navigating the legal system with language or cultural barriers.

      1. Legal information can be harder to access

      Legal information is more difficult to access if you do not speak or read English. For people who are trying to navigate the legal system on their own, it is more difficult to find pamphlets and how-to guides in languages other than English. You’ll find less helpful websites through Google searches, and you’ll find fewer pro bono legal advocates.

      If you’re not from Canada or a country with a similar legal system, then you’ll be less likely to know general information about how our legal system works, including the various protections and rights available to you. This raises a whole host of social justice issues that I suspect my colleagues will cover over the next few weeks.

      If you cannot handle your case on your own, then you will need to either find a lawyer who speaks your language or hire an interpreter to work with you and your lawyer.

      2. You need to use interpreters

      Interpreters are useful when you cannot find a lawyer who speaks your language. Regardless, if you testify in court, you will need to use an interpreter.

      Some cases can be won or lost based on mistakes made by an interpreter. In a recent criminal case, the defendant testified in Ibo, an African language that is common in Nigeria, about having been beaten before arriving in Canada and speaking to immigration officials. On a couple of occasions, “coughing up blood” was translated as “vomiting blood”. Before it was corrected, the mix-up in the translation made it appear as though he was either lying or greatly exaggerating his story.

      In my experience, many Chinese speakers use the term back to refer to their entire back and neck. In a personal injury lawsuit where someone feels pain is important, the Judge or jury could view someone who complains of “back” pain but has only visited their doctor for neck problems as less credible.

      Not all interpreters are created equal. If you are going to use an interpreter, it is important to ensure that you have a duly qualified interpreter who speaks a similar dialect as you in order to limit miscommunications.

      3. It might be more difficult for people to connect with you

      Lawyers spend a great deal of time designing and crafting their cases in order to make sure that their client’s evidence comes out in the best light. We want the Judge or jury to empathize with our clients. In a personal injury action, you want the Judge or jury to feel how your client’s life has been upended by their injuries: the pain, sleepless nights, strained relationships, and time off work. In a criminal case, you want them to trust in the good character of your client or at least relate to them.

      When someone gives evidence through an interpreter, it can be more difficult for the Judge or jury to connect with what they are saying. The trier will not have the benefit of voice inflection or watching someone’s body language at the same time that they are speaking. Even with great interpreters, part of what you say will be lost in translation.

      Cultural differences can also impact how a witness is understood. Some cultures are overly expressive while others value stoicism and keeping private. In a personal injury action, it can be a challenge to open someone up to talk about their injuries and how they have impacted their life. It might also be a cultural taboo to talk about the psychological effects of an injury. These folk may want to have English-speaking or more expressive friends and family members tell the court about how the injury has impacted their life.

      Joseph Fearon is a civil litigation lawyer at Stevens Virgin practising in the areas of personal injury and commercial litigation. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at 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.