U.S. Case a Cautionary Tale for Multilingual Lawyers

Posted on: July 15th, 2014 by Suzanne Deliscar 10 Comments

Orangeville lawyer-linguist Suzanne Deliscar says the outspoken statement by a Texas judge that her court endangered the rights of non-English speakers and was “a stumbling block to a better justice system” is a cautionary tale of how legal practitioners who work with ethnic communities could stand in the way of a client’s constitutional right to an interpreter.

“For those lawyers who speak different languages, they should keep in mind that their client has the right to a third-party, impartial interpreter during the proceedings,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“An interpreter does not interfere with a lawyer’s work. An interpreter assists both the lawyer and his/her client to communicate with each, if necessary, and others in the court system, and it frees up a lawyer, multilingual or otherwise, to focus on his/her work as the lawyer.”

– See more at: http://advocatedaily.com/2014/07/u-s-case-a-cautionary-tale-for-multilingual-lawyers

10 Responses

  1. Robert Sugar, Esq. says:

    I am a tri-lingual attorney. Just as the client has a right to an interpreter political correctness overlooks the fact that the clients/defendants have an obligation to assimilate and learn the English language. The official language of America is English. When I came to this country as a legal immigrant I made it my priority to learn English. Political correctness run amok and providing interpreters to people who refuse to assimilate is not only a burden on the taxpayers and our fragile legal system but is doing a disservice to those who refuse to learn English.

    • Chris Crain says:

      If the principle at stake is truly “the rule of law,” then let’s correct the erroneous underlying assumption that English is “the official language of the U.S.” Since the U.S. does NOT, in fact, have any official language, such an appeal to the “rule of law” is either grossly mistaken or a transparent pretext for underlying prejudice based on race, ethnicity and/or national origin. (Yes, members of an identified group like the commenter can exhibit such prejudice, either against other minorities or even against their own, usually out of an overwhelming desire to assimilate.)

      Moreover, even if the “official language of the U.S.” were English, a judicial procedure designed to justly resolve disputes while retaining fundamental due process and protecting the rights of all litigants is the WRONG place to exercise enforcement of such a designation. Doing so defeats more fundamental principles undergirding the system, even when applied in the most favorable context, upon undocumented residents, non-citizen permanent residents or those born outside the U.S. who have become naturalized U.S. citizens.

    • Robert, thank you for your comment. You are uniquely positioned as a trilingual lawyer who had to learn English upon arriving to North American, specifically the United States. I suppose one counter-argument to your position would be that people who are seeking asylum, refugees, etc. could not be reasonably expected to know English prior to immigrating to Canada or the United States. In addition, many people have told me that even though they are fluent in English, they feel more comfortable speaking in their mother tongue when under pressure. A court proceeding is typically stressful for all parties involved, and perhaps the litigants can be better participants in the process if they are using the language they are most comfortable with.

  2. Thomas Kis-Major says:

    Many immigrants cannot learn a new language because of age or ill health.

    • Thomas, thank you for your comment. I suppose it depends upon which immigration category an immigrant uses to apply to enter an English-speaking country. Some countries have sponsorship options that allow aged parents to immigrate to join their adult children. Chances are that these individuals will not learn English, and perhaps if they do not venture out of the family home environment, they may not feel it necessary.

  3. Andrea Kaluzny says:

    As one of the last non-Hispanic Miamians, I agree with Robert, that immigrants should at least give English, that other North American language, a serious try. However, I also understand the obstacles many have to overcome to expose themseves to the language to learn it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be young enough and to have the wherewithall to attend school, instead of having to hit the ground running or rather working while trapped in areas of town where one only speaks their native tongue (a.k.a. all of Miami, plus most of S. Florida).

    However, even those who do their best to learn the language may never attain a level, where they can follow court proceedings to vindicate their own rights. How can we deprive someone of the inalienable right to understand what he has been charged with, the possible legal repercussions and the possibility to defend himself?

    Who else should be deprieved of assistance before the court? How about monolingual Americans, born with impaired hearing in need of sign language interpreters?

    What about them pesky real foreigners and such, like tourists, getting themselves into trouble here? Hey learn English first if you want to come here and (perhaps) kill a rival for your boyfriend’s affection! How do you say that in Italian? Or do you think Amanda Knox had an interpreter when she was being charged with the murder of a British exchange student in Italy? What would the American public have said had she not had access to interpreters because Italian tax payers had protested this unnecessary expense?

    What is America? Just another piece of new world real estate accidently rediscovered by Europeans trying to feed their hunger for Indian goods, later settled by the same bunch of people, who decendent on the entire hemisphere. America really should be nothing special, and yet it is. Why are we so much better off than everyone else? Why do we prosper when others fail, why have we not become yet antoher banana repulic and why do people continue to believe in us, try to move here or invest in our country?

    The Rule of Law. Plain and simple. It is not optional, a suggestion or based on constitions, which keep being inactivated or redrafted by each new successive dictatorial government. We cannot be deprived of our life, liberty or property interests without the due process of law. Everyone knows that, although they may not understand the process. It makes a world of difference and is no luxury but the very foundation on which our country was founded and is able to thrive. Without it we are nothing.

    I also do not always agree with how my government decides to waste my hard earned tax dollars, but I do not believe court interpreters to be a good example of waste. The ulitmate price of foregoing the due process of law would be a very high one indeed and not just in idealisitcal terms but also in real dollars and cents. No matter how fiscally irresponsible our elected officals have shown themselves to be, people still believe America to be a safe heaven for their money. They know it to be a law abiding country, where their property will not be expropriated and they will not be thrown into jail for having created a legal business, nor do they have to fear corrupt officals or criminal cops. Everyone is equal before the law and being able to follow proceedings is the most basic prerequisit for justice to be done.

    Brief, ensuring that the rule of law applies to all is in all of our best interst. Even if it means providing every little thug, who pretends not to speak English, with an interpreter. It is really a small price to pay to safeguard the very foundation of this country on which all of liberty depends.

  4. Peter Berge says:

    The fact is that some visitors, residents and even citizens do not speak English, and others have “assimilated” and learned English but are not so fluent that they can express and understand the degree of depth and detail that they should in a legal proceeding. There will always be a need for interpreters.

    Parenthetically, I have seen/heard Americans living in Spanish-speaking countries whose Spanish was, simply, atrocious. Some claimed that it was the best that they had been able to do. I suspect that the same holds for some people coming to this country.

    There is also a role for bilingual or multilingual attorneys. I routinely find that court-certified, bilingual interpreters make significant errors in depositions and during court testimony. This happens even more when they are not from the same country that the witness is from. Those of us who understand our clients’ language are in a position to reduce the chance that serious misunderstandings occur through mistakes in translation.

    • Hello Peter, thank you for your comment. I agree that there will always be a need for interpreters. As I have said in the past, when people are under stress, which is likely if participating in a court proceeding, they are more likely to want to speak in their native tongue in order to properly express themselves.

  5. While I agree that all residents of the U.S. should learn English, defending oneself in court is an entirely different situation. It requires specialized vocabulary that even the average bi-lingual person might not know.

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… I witnessed a lawyer who advertised himself as bi-lingual give incorrect information to a client in a bankruptcy court. What he said and what he thought he said were two different things. I did not intervene.

    Knowledge of a foreign language is important. It is good both for business and socially. It helps establish rapport with your clients, important in many cultures, and helps socially. However, you need to know your limitations. You cannot negotiate a contract or defend yourself in court unless you are truly bi-lingual.

    So yes, translators and interpreters are important.

    No one mentioned, at least I did not read it, the fact that in Miami, there are Spanish only juries and English juries. I do not know how a case qualifies for one or the other.

    • Hello Louise, thank you for your comment. I was not aware that there were Spanish only juries in Miami. I find that very interesting, as although Spanish is not an official language of the United States, it is treated as such in Miami with regard to jury trials. In Canada, French speakers have similar rights under the Official Languages Act.

Leave a Reply