A Day in the Life of a Clarion Court Interpreter


Guest blogger, Julia Anderson, Clarion Staff Interpreter, shares with us a typical day for a BSL interpreter working in the legal domain.

A Very Early Start!

Most of my work is in and around London so I need to be on the 07.00 train in order to be at court for 9.15. On the train in I will normally catch up with my emails, type up notes for my supervisor and read back through my log for anything which will help me prepare for the day’s assignments.

I Work in Various Justice Settings

My assignment could be anything from a preliminary hearing at a Magistrates’ Court, a directions hearing in the Family Courts, a Mental Health Tribunal in a secure unit, a Crown Court trial, all the way up to the Court of Appeal. If I am on a trial I usually stay in a hotel, I am normally away on average two weeks out of four, although this is usually in long blocks rather than two week stints. I always have lots of books loaded on to my ipad!

Our Own Trials and Tribulations

When I first started working in the courts, defendants and parties in family proceedings always had their own interpreters for consultation with their representatives, the court interpreters worked in court for the benefit of all parties. There are numerous reasons why it is both logistically and professionally difficult – if not impossible in some cases – for the court interpreters to work for advocates as well as the court. Unfortunately, given the cuts in legal aid funding, representatives have to make a special application to the court to obtain funding for their own interpreter and, almost all the time, the court will expect the court appointed interpreters to work for both out of court and in court. Not such a problem if there is one Deaf party and it is a short hearing, but it becomes impossible when there is more than one Deaf party and/or the case is listed for trial. See also our article on Interpreter Impartiality during Court Cases.

My Day Can Change Very Quickly!

I aim to arrive at court at least 15 minutes before the booked start time in order to find the courtroom, book in, ask the clerk to request permission from the Judge to interpret from the bench if appropriate, meet any advocates and the Deaf party/ies and get some information as to what I am actually there for. Usually all we have to go on is the Deaf person’s name, start time, case number and type of hearing – often this bit is wrong, I recently turned up to what was booked as a short sentencing hearing only to be told it was the start of a trial! Luckily I had a colleague there (due to the physically and mentally tiring nature of interpreting between two modes of language we cannot work more than an hour alone) and so we were able to proceed, although the agency had to try and find cover for the afternoon booking they had me assigned to which was another Magistrates’ hearing on the other side of London. Courts often don’t seem to realise that we get booked up months in advance, I work in court pretty much every day, and so if one trial over-runs it isn’t as simple as us just staying on an extra day or week, we are usually booked to start on another trial straight away, and that court won’t be best pleased if we don’t turn up!

Working With Other Professionals

If my assignment is for a full day I will meet my co-worker, establish how we are going to work together and talk through anything which will help us prepare for the job. We will then meet the client to establish communication; as a general rule the section of the Deaf population which passes through the justice system has a higher incidence of low educational levels, mental health difficulties and learning difficulties than the general Deaf population and so there is always the possibility that the client may have some issues affecting communication. If we feel that the client has such difficulties that we will not be able to understand each other effectively we will recommend that the client has a Deaf Intermediary/Relay Interpreter to mediate the language produced by the BSL/English Interpreters.

Helping Court Staff On How it Needs to Work!

It is entirely understandable that advocates and court staff, for the most part, are unfamiliar with the way BSL/English Interpreters work, so I usually have to explain a few things when I arrive, firstly being that, unlike spoken language interpreters, we have to be face to face with the Deaf person and so we don’t sit in the dock, not unless both we and the defendant want cricked necks! If we are listed for trial we will find the prosecution advocate and ask for some papers, because sign language is a visuo-spatial language and is heavily context dependent we are unable to interpret some visually specific information without actually seeing what is being discussed. Talking about a map of a location is impossible if we can’t see the map! An Advocate’s Toolkit for use when working with Deaf people (shortly to be available on The Advocate’s Gateway www.theadvocatesgateway.org) has been produced by a team of experts in the field of deafness, sign language and the legal system. The Toolkit is an excellent resource and hopefully will help to alleviate a lot of the frustrations and misunderstandings we encounter on a daily basis in the courts once it is more widely promulgated.

Lunch on the Go!

At around 1pm court breaks for lunch, if I am on a full day assignment my co-worker and I will try and find a sandwich whilst we talk through how the morning has gone, if I have a separate afternoon assignment I will usually cram a sandwich in on the tube as I race across London to my next job. Then repeat until 4.30 when I can race off to get the train home, I normally get in around 8pm unless I’m staying away.

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