The quality of judicial interpretation worries lawyers: “It is a question of access to justice”

Bilingual lawyers say the uneven quality of judicial interpretation is “horrible” and unfair to New Zealanders who do not have English as their mother tongue.

Dunedin lawyer Marie Taylor-Cyphers, who speaks French, said she was horrified when she saw French defendants who wanted to “intimidate” or indicate that a guilty plea in court was misinterpreted as “a guilty plea”.

“It’s a question of access to justice,” she said.

Taylor-Cyphers said she was aware that defendants who use interpreters perform differently than defendants whose mother tongue is English.

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She said the Justice Department should fund training for all court interpreters to ensure they understand the vocabulary and rules of the court.

Auckland-based employment advocate May Moncur is also concerned.


Blair Atkinson is one of 47 sworn and unsworn police officers who have taken Mandarin courses. (Video first published in September 2019)

Moncur, who is fluent in Mandarin, said the quality of interpretation she observed at the Labor Relations Authority and the Labor Court is “extremely varied”.

“Some [interpreters] are very good, some are very bad, ”she said.

Moncur said she had previously represented a client who brought suit against her employer for unfair dismissal, where her client’s statement of “termination” was misinterpreted by the interpreter as “resignation”.

“I was so frustrated,” she said.

She was the only other Mandarin speaker in court, but was unable to correct the interpretation in her role as a lawyer.

“When I tell the authority that the interpretation was wrong, the authority would think that I am trying to interfere with the course of justice.

May Moncur, employment advocate in Auckland.


May Moncur, employment advocate in Auckland.

“When you meet these unqualified interpreters, you will ask, ‘Have they been evaluated?’ It is very disappointing.

Moncur said it is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem, but “when it does happen the impact on the person is 100%.”

Auckland lawyer Alfred Chong, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, said the quality of judicial interpretation is a “blind spot”.

“The judge wouldn’t know because most of them are not bilingual, the defendant does not speak English, so only bilingual lawyers would know – but few of them work in a judicial setting.”

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The Ministry of Justice centralized its interpreter reservation system in 2015, transferring the responsibility for reserving interpreters from individual court registries to a central processing unit for the whole country.

The ministry’s director of operations, Carl Crafar, said the change was aimed at enabling nationally consistent service delivery in all languages.

Corn Things spoke with several interpreters with decades of experience who said the centralized reservation system was partly to blame for what they see as a decline in the quality of the interpretation.

George Chang has been a licensed court interpreter since 2000.


The government has spent almost $ 12 million on court interpreters over the past five years. (First published in December 2019)

He said that before 2015 the courts had their own coordinator who had a better measure of the skill level of each interpreter.

“They would assign you work based on your performance … they would know what [interpreters] are better suited to interpret for jury trials, which they should set up for less demanding court hearings… they would also garner feedback, ”Chang said.

“Since [the central processing unit] won, the impact was huge, there is no quality control.

Chang also raised concerns about the quality of interpreters sent by language service providers – independent companies hired by the ministry.

Data obtained by Things showed that of the ministry’s total spending on court interpretation between 2015 and 2021, 62 percent went to language service providers.

Crafar denied that centralization had any impact on the quality of judicial interpretation.

He said the ministry is reviewing freelance interpreters and providers added to its reservation list.

However, he does not control the individual interpreters provided by the companies, as he expects them “to be of sufficient quality”.

As of June, it had 136 freelance interpreters and 17 language service providers.

Crafar said the ministry tries to engage with freelance interpreters before approaching language service providers.

No specific judicial training is planned for interpreters, but the ministry is looking to create an integration program, he said.

Annual court interpretation expenses have increased from $ 2.58 million to $ 3.34 million over the past five years.

In October 2020, the ministry introduced a new system in which complaints are managed centrally.

He indicated that eight complaints relating to the services of court interpreters had been received since then, including five relating to the quality of interpretation.

Crafar said the ministry could not provide the number of complaints before the new system.

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