Why the Ontario justice system might not be speaking your language

March 12, 2018
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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.

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