“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

In Chinatown, the celebrated 1974 film noir, a private detective played by Jack Nicholson attempts to do the right thing for his client but his actions inadvertently do far more harm than good. The movie’s closing line sees a colleague asking him to walk away and put the events behind him. A cynical movie character struggling with that scenario is one thing, but how much more difficult must it be for a principled officer of the court? One of the problems facing our legal professionals recently surfaced in a real life “Chinatown” scene, and as with the movie it offered no immediate prospect of a happy ending.

Earlier this month a Crown court judge asked a defence barrister to search the Chinese restaurants of Cardiff for an interpreter after the agency contracted to provide one failed to do so, not once but twice. Liu Sun, the defendant, had been arrested for offences related to importing prohibited goods. She denied the charges, but was denied a fair hearing on two consecutive days when no Mandarin speaking interpreter was provided. His Honour Judge Burr, no doubt exasperated, made the request but it was refused. Understandably and fortunately. While it could open up a string of employment opportunities for catering staff, this isn’t a precedent we want to set.

Until February 2012, courts in England and Wales were at liberty to hire freelance legal interpreters from a national register. The decision to award a near monopoly to a single language service provider was intended as a cost cutting exercise, promising savings close to £20 million a year. A large part of the saving was to come from legal interpreters being forced to accept reduced rates from the only employer in the market. What else could they do?

The reality has been very different, of course. Skilled professional interpreters simply refused to be held to ransom and boycotted the process. A review started by the Public Accounts Committee in December 2012 uncovered tales of an interpreter register peppered with fictional names and even family pets. At regular intervals since then we’ve heard positive noises indicating that the ship has been steadied, but this Cardiff episode suggests that responsible legal professionals and their clients may be back to square one.

So what does the future hold?

Should pizza waiters be drafted in for Italian interpreting assignments?

Should sushi servers be called upon to mediate Japanese renewable energy trade deals?

Or should we draw a line in the sand and leave crucial linguistic tasks to suitably skilled linguists?

Skilled courtroom interpreters aren’t just speakers of a language. They are specialists, comfortable with the chosen mode of interpreting, with the terminology of their field and with the pressures of any given case. They are professionals, as much as the officers of the court they serve.

And like the solicitors, barristers and judges they work alongside, they have no appetite for scenarios where a client has been done more harm than good. They don’t want Chinatown. By working together, the legal profession and their support partners can deliver something very much better.


David Jones

2 thoughts on “Chinatown

  1. Did this really happen or is it just a rumour? I am all too familiar with shortages of interpreters under this disastrous contract (thank you MOJ) but for a Crown court judge to compound the problem in this way seems absurd.

  2. Yes Marta, a barrister really was advised to look for a Chinese interpreter in a Chinese restaurant. Just as a dog really was included on the court interpreter register and numerous non English speaking defendants really have spent night after night unnecessarily incarcerated while waiting for someone to give a voice to their defence. I sympathise with the frustration of solicitors and barristers who want only justice for their clients and coherence for the legal process.

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