Mick Clifford: Use of interpreters a necessary expense in unequal system

A judge in Portlaoise recently claimed she was sick of 'people hiding behind interpreters' in her court but they remain crucial in the pursuit of justice, writes Mick Clifford
Mick Clifford: Use of interpreters a necessary expense in unequal system

Judge Miriam Walsh has an issue with interpreters. The judge recently told Portlaoise District Court that she was “sick to the back teeth of people hiding behind interpreters” in her court. Picture: iStock

Are interpreters in court costing that fabled citizen, The Taxpayer, too much? Should we cut back on the cost, tell some of these foreign nationals to listen a bit harder, interpret for themselves what is going through maybe body language or something?

Judge Miriam Walsh has an issue with interpreters. The judge recently told Portlaoise District Court that she was “sick to the back teeth of people hiding behind interpreters” in her court. 

It was an extraordinary statement, suggesting a widespread practice among foreign nationals to act the maggot in court, by falsely declaring the need for an interpreter in an attempt to frustrate the court’s work. Judge Walsh did not offer any evidence for such a statement, but it certainly kicked up a little controversy.

The case at issue was pretty standard fare for the district court in urban, or indeed any part of, Ireland. A 24-year-old man pleaded guilty to assaulting two people in a takeaway restaurant as well as threatening, abusive, and insulting behaviour while drunk.

At 8pm on the day in question, the defendant went into the Malik takeaway on the Dublin Rd in the town to order food, but he became aggressive, Sergeant JJ Kirby told the court. He went behind the counter and punched a staff member in the face several times. Another man, who went to assist the staff member, was also assaulted. The defendant doesn’t remember much about the night. He was drinking whiskey, his solicitor Josephine Fitzpatrick told the court.

“He went out for a few drinks with his friends and his next recollection is waking up in the garda station,” she said. 

“He realises he has to compensate the injured parties and has written letters of apology. He has no previous convictions and is of previous good character.”

The judge understandably took a dim view of the circumstances.

“While he may have little recollection of what happened, his two victims have,” she said. 

She was told an interpreter would be required. Then she let off a little judicial steam, pointing out that interpreters are “costing the taxpayer money”.

“He’s been living in Ireland for the past five years and he wants an interpreter," she said. 

"He didn’t need an interpreter with him when he went to buy his drink, or when he goes shopping. They know more English than we know ourselves. I’m sick to the back teeth of people hiding behind interpreters. He beat the sugar out of two people, who were just doing their job that night.” 

To be fair to Judge Walsh, her controlled anger at hearing the circumstances of the assault is entirely understandable. Casual violence, usually committed under the influence of alcohol, is a cultural phenomenon in this society. Innocent victims like fast-food workers should be entitled to go to work unafraid of what their shift might bring.

But her comments about interpreters were selective, to say the least. It is also the case that interpreters are not required when people come to this country to prop up the low-paid sector and without whom the economy might shudder to a halt. Interpreters are not required for the legions of foreign nationals who ensure that the health service at every level continues to function. Neither are interpreters required when the same workers hand over their tax euros to the State and generally contribute to the fashioning of the kind of multicultural society that enriches all aspects of life in this country.

Requiring an interpreter to be fully cognisant of proceedings which could result in a term of imprisonment is surely not too much to ask and, to be fair, neither is it ever denied. But it would seem that Judge Walsh is of the opinion that “they” don’t really need one, and are hiding behind the delay and drawn-out hearing that flow from employing an interpreter. 

So how many of those in need of language assistance does she deem to be acting the maggot in this respect?

In all likelihood, there are a few who play the system in this respect, just as there are a few who will play the system by any means at their disposal, particularly to delay or frustrate the dreaded day of judgement. 

There are also others who might, with some difficulty, manage to interpret for themselves what is going on. But is that good enough if they are, for instance, involved in proceedings that might find them guilty of a criminal offence and possibly result in imprisonment?

There are also, however, a large cohort who simply do not have any command of the English language, and in a country in which nearly 13% of residents are non-Irish born as of April 2021.

The judge quite obviously and correctly wants to guard the public purse, but some costs are necessary. 

Last year, according to the Courts Service, the cost of interpreters was €1.5m for attendance in 9,216 cases. That is a drop in the ocean of legal costs that are weighing down the whole system. Just this week, it was announced that plans to tackle ballooning legal costs were once more being delayed. The civil law system, as observed by former chief justice Frank Clarke, is so costly that it is “all but moving beyond the resources of all but a few”.

So, while it is commendable that Judge Walsh is keeping an eye on the public purse, interpreters — and the work they perform to ensure that all are equal before the law — is cheap for the price compared to what is spent elsewhere in a very unequal system.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up