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February 13, 2004

Judge orders services for deaf

From: Ottawa Citizen - Ottawa,Ontario,Canada - Feb 13, 2004

Attorney General's guidelines don't comply with Charter

Jake Rupert and Tara Currie
The Ottawa Citizen

A Charter of Rights motion granted yesterday by an Ottawa judge, who ordered the province to provide sign language interpretation in a family law case, has sparked a review of the government's policy on court interpretation services.

Ontario Attorney General's Ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley said that since at least the mid-1990s, the policy in Ontario courts has been to provide interpretation only in cases in which the state is a litigant, such as criminal cases or child protection cases involving the Children's Aid Society.

Mr. Crawley said the ministry, which runs the province's courts, doesn't provide interpretation in civil or family cases, in which private citizens or companies are pitted against each other.

Under the policy, people who need interpreters in those cases are expected to pay for them.

However, he said, after Ontario Superior Court Justice Charles Hackland ordered the ministry to provide proper interpretation to a former couple, both of whom are deaf, involved in a support and child custody case, the policy will be re-examined.

"We will comply with that order, and we will review our policy in light of that order," he said.

Judge Hackland made the order without debate when lawyers for Carrie Downey, 39, and Michael Loucks, 36, brought a joint motion under Section 14 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees people's rights to interpretation in all court cases.

According to documents filed in court, Ms. Downey's lawyer, Susan Arlitt, repeatedly made requests at the Elgin Street courthouse court services office for interpreters before yesterday's hearing. She was told that despite the province's having provided interpretation in the past in such cases on an ad hoc basis, the policy would now be enforced: no interpreters.

In response, Ms. Arlitt brought the motion and Michel Boulet, a family lawyer who acted for Mr. Loucks yesterday, joined her. Both lawyers made brief submissions to the judge on the issue.

Mr. Boulet's submissions largely consisted of reading the section titled "Interpreter."

"The difficulty is that both parties in this case are deaf ... but interpreters have not been provided," Mr. Boulet said. "The section says, 'A party or witness in any proceedings who does not understand or speak the language in which the proceedings are conducted or who is deaf has the right to the assistance of an interpreter.'"

"That's pretty clear," Judge Hackland said. "Of course I'll make that order."

By the time the order was made, officials from court services, who had heard about the pending Charter motion, had retained the services of a sign language interpreter. This woman spent most of the day trying her best to help both sides as they negotiated the case, but they made little headway.

This is because in a situation where several people taking opposed positions are involved in speaking about complex issues, deaf interpretation industry standards require four interpreters.

Sign and foreign language interpreters have long been made available at the Ottawa courthouse in family cases because often the parties can't afford them. It is only recently that the ministry's policy has been complied with. Court services officials are ordered not to speak to the press on such issues.

When Mr. Loucks and Ms. Downey, who are both of modest means, were getting divorced four years ago, they say four interpreters were provided at every court appearance. Both say they were shocked when they learned the service was not going to be provided this time.

Before an interpreter arrived, Ms. Downey had her mother, who had travelled to be in Ottawa yesterday, doing interpretation. Through her mother, who is not a trained interpreter, Ms. Downey said she's upset at the unfair way she was treated because of her disability.

"Things are getting worse and worse," she said. "They are cutting and cutting, and it is more getting difficult for us."

Mr. Loucks said he couldn't believe the ministry's policy could be so discriminatory. He said he thought basic rights issues, such as being able to understand court proceedings, had been dealt with long ago.

"This is just stupid," he said. "How can the government expect people to go to court and not be able to understand anything that is going on. It doesn't make sense."

Others in the deaf and civil rights communities agree.

Jim Roots, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Deaf, said the Supreme Court of Canada has said "deaf people have a right to interpretive services for all government services."

He said it's ridiculous to expect deaf Canadians to get a fair trial without an interpreter.

"I think it's absurd. It's flat out impossible," he said "It's as though you as an English speaking, unilingual person were to be tried only in Russian.

"It makes me wonder if I am even considered a citizen of Canada under the law and in the eyes of the government.

"My family has been in this country for 10 generations going back to the 17th century, and I'm left wondering why I am regarded as something less than a citizen today because I can't hear."

He said in 2004, it's insulting to suggest that deaf Canadians should have to pay extra to take part in a societal institution such as the justice system.

"We are not the ones who should pay for it. Do you expect wheelchair users to pay for cut curbs and ramps. Do you expect blind people to pay for braille? Why should deaf people have to pay for interpreters?" he said.

Katherine Hum-Antonopoulos, vice-president of access and counselling services for the Canadian Hearing Association, said interpretation services should be provided in all court cases, and that what happened yesterday is a sign of a larger problem in Ontario.

"In general, there is a shortage of qualified sign language interpreters across the province," she said.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004