Now that I am retired having been many years a magistrate with a long awareness of the declining freedoms enjoyed by the ordinary citizen and a corresponding fear of the big brother state`s ever increasing encroachment on civil liberties I hope that my personal observations within these general parameters will be of interest to those with an open mind. Having been blogging with this title for many years against the rules of the Ministry of Justice my new found freedom should allow me to be less inhibited in these observations.




Comments are usually moderated. However, I do not accept any legal responsibility for the content of any comment. If any comment seems submitted just to advertise a website it will not be published.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

DID MY BENCH STEP TOO FAR?



For many reasons as varied as increased numbers of immigrants and determination of public bodies to prosecute, magistrates` courts are often the scene where somebody with English very much a second or even third language comes into contact with legal officialdom. Those defendants facing charges eg of freeloading on buses or trains, having no TV license, being drunk & disorderly or driving without a valid license often have difficulty real or for effect in telling the court what it needs to know and answering even simplified questions. All courts must provide an interpreter to ensure there is a "level playing field" so that poor or no English does not prejudice the defendant. That process takes time and requires the case being adjourned. It also costs a lot of money. From time to time the problems with failures in the courts` interpreters` contract make the news.  The possible scandals in the awarding of the initial national contract to Applied Language Solutions which very quickly sold out to Capita plc preceded a catastrophic breakdown in efficiency. An article in the Guardian last year was and is one of many highlighting this seemingly intractable problem. Obviously I have no current experience with the state of interpreters within magistrates` courts but I do remember an experience chairing a bench which has not lost its relevance today.


A Sudanese man appeared who was charged with having no ticket on a train journey. Despite being questioned in very simple English by the legal adviser and the bench chairman it was difficult to conclude whether he was pleading guilty but trying to offer mitigation........a common occurrence........or was pleading not guilty the latter plea necessitating an adjournment for trial and the appointment of an interpreter. A member of the bench had Arabic as a fairly fluent second language and I authorised him to inquire of the Hausa speaking defendant if he was comfortable in the second tongue of many Sudanese....Arabic although of a different dialect. He nodded and a simple exchange began whereupon our legal adviser advised..... because that`s what she`s there for......that our impartiality as a bench might be in question if we continued. Accordingly and somewhat reluctantly we ceased and the trial arrangements were made.


Subsequent discussion with colleagues indicated that they considered we were walking a very slippery slope and they themselves in a similar situation would not have ventured as we had done. Perhaps we did indeed go a step too far; perhaps not but I am far from sure I wouldn`t have done the same again. We were a multi ethnic multi language bench of around three hundred JPs each of whom had sworn an oath to do right by all men. So a little bit of unofficial interpreting was just a use of skills. In addition it would probably have avoided continual stress for the defendant and loadsamoney in a courts system where there was no certainty that a trial court on any day would even have had the services of an usher to call witnesses. We were, and J.P.s still are,  appointed to bring, inter alia, their skills to the Bench.  Indeed on occasion I used my own professional knowledge questioning witnesses for clarification who have offered statements or answers that I knew were impossible and untrue.  

But that particular day`s tale as per the account above was of just another day on the bench.

2 comments:

  1. Whatever the first language of your Sudanese defendant was, it certainly wasn't Hausa, that being a west african language and Sudan is erm, east africa.
    Geography aside (!) I fully support your actions. The hearing had to take a satisfactory plea that is what I assume your colleague was able to do.
    Whatever the plea was I imagine you had already decided to adjourn the matter since a substantive hearing without a suitable interpreter would not have been appropriate and perhaps that is what you meant by the intervention of the legal adviser.

    Your colleague's arabic must have been pretty good if he could deal with even simple legal terms!

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    1. This post was written from very brief notes taken at the time and your observation might be a reflection on my memory of detail. Anyway thank you for your opinion.

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