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April 4, 2005

Signs of justice

From: Jamaica Observer - Apr 4 2005

Court staff learning sign language to better serve hearing impaired

Observer Reporter
Monday, April 04, 2005

THE hearing impaired population cuts across educational and income-groupings and, like all citizens, must enjoy the same privileges in court proceedings and not be made to feel they are in any way prejudiced by the justice system.

This is spelt out clearly, in Section 20 , subsection 6 (a) of the Constitution of Jamaica.

"Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be informed as soon as reasonably practicable, in a language which he understands, of the nature of the offence charged," it states.

The same is true for any hearing-impaired citizen brought or called into court as witnesses or for other matters. The Ministry of Justice has began to accommodate their rights with the increased use of sign language in the court system.

Staff members of several courts have successfully completed the Sign Language Competency Course II at the Justice Training Institute (JTI). This preliminary course offered participants exposure to conversational communication skills in sign language around topics commonly discussed between the justice system personnel and persons who use the court or are called before it.

The step taken to learn sign language is a step towards parity with developed countries whose courts tend to be accommodative of persons of different ethnicities and competences.

However, for Jamaica's court staff to be classified as sign language interpreters, further training would be required. Speaking to the benefits of sign language to the justice system, Chief Justice of Jamaica Lensley Wolfe, who also heads the JTI Advisory Board, says the initiative by the JTI is "worthy of note, as we are preparing people to interpret and communicate with people in Court who are deaf and dumb." Court personnel who recently graduated from the specialised course said such training for court staff was long overdue.

"This will invite the deaf community to have their legal issues addressed in court with the confidence that they will not be unfairly prejudiced or treated as misfits and that the justice system will work for them," says Richard James, paralegal officer at Half Way Tree Court.

The course was also open to social workers and other officers within the Department of Correctional Services whose role is to provide counseling, liaise with schools, act as court social workers, prepare affiliation (maintenance) reports, social enquiry reports, parole reports, along with other court related reports.

"The deaf community in Jamaica operates as a community on its own and has their own culture and ways of resolving disputes," says Gaylan Baxter, social worker/probation officer.

"The availability of sign language communicators in the justice system will positively change that culture thereby allowing them to readily come forward to resolve matters that would previously be resolved outside of court." Baxter says her knowledge of sign language facilitates a speedier interview process, recounting a recent experience where a deaf woman person was applying for custody of her child.

This interview, she says, "was carried out immediately, eliminating the waiting period usually experienced when requesting an outside interpreter."

While no data currently exists at the Supreme Court as to the frequency of use of sign language, the justice system deems it important to have competent staff available.

Its relevance to the justice system cannot be pushed aside. Prior to the courts having persons trained in sign language, the Jamaica Association for the Deaf would be asked to assist in court proceedings.

This relationship is not expected to end in the near term, but the administrators of the justice system are committed to broadening the provision of sign language interpreters in Jamaica.

Contributed by the Ministry of Justice

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