The Role of an Interpreter in Dealing With the Australian Legal System
In Australia, the major language of government is English. It is the official language and is the language of schools and other educational institutions. With few exceptions, English will be the main language used throughout the legal system, including the courts, amongst lawyers, and the law enforcement system. However, this doesn’t mean that other languages are used from time to time in the Australian legal system, whether this is in one of the state or territory legal systems or in the federal system. This is because many Australians and people of other nationalities who live or work in Australia may speak a language other than English as their first language.
It can be intimidating and stressful for many people whose first language is not English to be questioned or to give evidence in a language they are not entirely fluent in. The possibility for a non-native English speaker to be misunderstood is sufficient to make providing an interpreter available in these situations important.
The role of an interpreter may be absolutely essential in many parts of Australia where significant numbers of indigenous Australians live. While many indigenous languages are no longer spoken, this is certainly not the case everywhere. In many more remote communities, the original language is still commonly used and there may be many people whose understanding of English is much less than that of their own language.
Whenever any indigenous Australian has anything to do with the legal system, it is important that an interpreter be available for effective communication. This is especially important in rural or urban police stations in communities with significant indigenous populations and in the different levels of courts. Without an interpreter, it is possible that someone could be accused of committing a crime they did not do or end up in jail for a crime they did not commit. Conversely, someone who did commit a crime may remain undetected because of difficulty in communicating with the local community.
The role of an interpreter isn’t confined to communicating with indigenous Australians. There are many other people throughout Australia who are more comfortable communicating in their own native language. They may get on fine for most aspects of their everyday lives but are involved in the legal system in some way, as witnesses, or as suspects, it can be counterproductive not to be able to communicate efficiently.
Most migrants to Australia are expected to have reasonable levels of language fluency, but this may not apply to refugees, of which Australia takes in quite a large number every year, as well as family members of migrants who come to Australia to join their families quite legitimately. Then there are students who may (in normal times) come to Australia to learn English as well as tourists (again in normal times), any one of whom may at some point in their stay here be involved with the law, even if just involved in a traffic incident or if they have had something stolen.
While the importance of having an interpreter present at times is recognized by all levels of the Australian legal system, it doesn’t unfortunately mean that a qualified and NAATI accredited interpreter is always available when needed.