Editorial - Testing interpreters: Good intentions gone bad

Once again, the issue of inadequate court interpretation services is on the public agenda.

Thanks to the high-profile prosecution of Toronto grocer David Chen, Ontarians are aware of the bewildering fact that the province has no fully accredited Mandarin court interpreters.

With such a large Chinese community in Ontario, that’s hard to believe. But with Chen’s ongoing trial for assault and forcible confinement delayed as a result, it’s also unacceptable.

The government has done the right thing in testing court interpreters to ensure they meet proficiency standards and thereby lessen the chances of a miscarriage of justice, an issue that’s already sparked a class action lawsuit over alleged wrongful convictions due to inadequate court
interpretation.

But with so many interpreters flunking the test - recent numbers put the failure rate at about 40 per cent - it’s obvious there’s a problem.

Interpreters say the test is too academic and doesn’t reflect the realities of what they do in court. At the same time, the Court Interpreters Association of Ontario has said the government has turned down offers to help train and upgrade the skills of interpreters.

It’s tempting to give the government the benefit of the doubt that it has designed a rigorous test for which people simply have to strive harder to meet the standards. But in another sector, similar complaints are arising.

Since April 15, private investigators have been subject to a new basic training and testing
requirement. Recent estimates at some agencies put failure rates at about 50 per cent.

Criticisms of the new system include the fact that there’s no approved curriculum for the training component; that those who design the courses don’t get to see the exam beforehand; and that the test is too broad and not necessarily relevant to the work private investigators do.

As well, people have complained that there’s no handbook to help prepare for the test.
“There were questions on it that I will never come across in my area of expertise,” one commentator identifying as a private investigator recently wrote on lawtimesnews.com.

It’s obvious, then, that there are flaws. Once again, good intentions at ensuring and raising proficiency standards are having unintended consequences.

In the case of court interpreters, it’s a major problem that the courts are wasting trial time due to the testing issue. But as we’ve seen in other areas of the justice system, the government is slow to fix the problems.

Ontario Court of Justice Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo, for example, has been warning about shortages of justices of the peace for some time, and now the issue is resurfacing as courts in places like Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., find themselves cancelling sitting days as a result (see Law Times, page 1).

While the government has made good efforts to reform the justice system in recent years, it’s clear that there’s an urgent need to do more.
- Glenn Kauth

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