Why the Ontario justice system might not be speaking your language

If you find yourself in court, you have the right to an interpreter. But exercising that right can be challenging in a province as diverse as Ontario
By Daniel Kitts - Published on March 6, 2018
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to an interpreter for a party or witness who does not understand or speak the language of a court proceeding. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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​You were pulled over by the police while driving, and the breathalyzer detected a blood-alcohol level well over the legal limit. You could be facing jail time. A complicated legal odyssey awaits you: finding a lawyer, entering a plea, setting a trial date, going to trial, and, if you’re found guilty, receiving a sentence. It can be a complex and intimidating process.

Now imagine doing all that in a language you don’t fully understand.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to an interpreter for a party or witness who does not understand or speak the language of a court proceeding. But considering that more than 140 languages and dialects are spoken in Toronto alone, fulfilling that guarantee in Ontario is easier said than done. Court observers say the situation has improved, but major challenges remain.

The problems with the system earned media attention in 2013, after Ontario Court Justice Peter Tetley complained publicly about having to throw out an impaired-driving case. As the Globe and Mail reports, when Singh Chohan was arrested, he allegedly had three times the allowable level of alcohol in his bloodstream, an amount Tetley described in court as “unconscionable.” But difficulties in securing a Punjabi interpreter so that Chohan could fully understand the court proceedings led to delays that compromised his constitutional right to a timely trial. As a result, the charges against him were stayed.

The Ministry of the Attorney General says it has responded to the concerns expressed by Justice Tetley and others. Since 2014, 115 new recruits have been added to the province’s interpreter registry, and 106 interpreters have upgraded their accreditation status to meet court requirements, ministry spokesperson Emilie Smith wrote in an email. She adds that the government has introduced an online tool to make the process of booking interpreters simpler and more efficient, and that the ministry has been encouraging the use of remote interpretation in locations where interpreters are hard to find.   

Kathryn Wells of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association says that, while her organization doesn’t have any recent data on access to interpreters, her own experiences and those of her colleagues suggest that the situation has improved. Many of her clients speak primarily Mandarin or Cantonese, and she’s found that qualified interpreters are now more regularly available.

Still, Wells says, the province is unlikely ever to have a perfect system, given the number of languages spoken here. She remembers a case that dragged on because a Guyanese Creole interpreter was needed.

“It’s hard to fault anyone for not having [an interpreter] readily accessible, because there aren’t too many people from rural Guyana who come here, speak that language, and decide to become an accredited court interpreter,” she says.

One challenge the court system faces is that the demands for different languages can fluctuate rapidly, says Shahla Husain, president of the Court Interpreters Association of Ontario (CIAO) and an interpreter who works primarily in Urdu but also provides services in Punjabi.


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A particularly demanding case involving multiple accused can tie up most of the interpreters for a given language, she says. Patterns of immigration also have a big effect: she says the influx of Syrian refugees in 2016 meant it was almost impossible for courts to find Arabic interpreters, as they were all busy doing work for the Immigration and Refugee Board and other government and settlement agencies.

“There’s no shortage of Arabic interpreters now. But at that point in time you’d say, ‘Oh, you know what? We need more Arabic interpreters.’ But that’s the nature of our work. It always fluctuates in terms of demand, and whatever happens in the rest of the world impacts the languages required here in Canada.”

Husain says that unlike five years ago, when Singh Chohan walked free, there are now many Punjabi interpreters.

But while Husain says she feels there are enough translators, low pay and uncertain scheduling means translation services are more difficult for courts to secure than they could be.

CIAO is currently trying to arrange a meeting with Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General to to discuss issues of concern to its membership. For example, Husain says, some translators avoid committing to lengthy criminal cases because they only get paid if things go as planned. If the case gets dropped or rescheduled, or a plea deal is reached, they are not compensated for the many days of work they expected to have. She says interpreters often find it safer and more lucrative to sign up for several minor traffic cases than for a big trial. Others opt to leave the profession altogether because the work is so precarious.

“That’s what personally hurts me the most,” Husain says. “When somebody with that ability and that talent is no longer in the pool and is doing something that she or he is not really good at or doesn’t really have a heart in, but has to do it because it’s financial survival.”

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