Reading the Gazette on the current problems of finding interpreters for defendants reminds me of the 1970s, when competent interpreters were even more thin on the ground.
Thames magistrates’ court, with foreign seamen coming up, had particular problems. I think it was the magistrate Donaldson Loudon, not generally regarded as having a great sense of humour, who decided he would himself interpret for a German charged with drunkenness. The first bit went well. ‘Tronk?’ he asked. ‘Ja,’ said the man.
‘Drei pund,’ said Loudon. ‘He’s only got 10 shillings,’ said the clerk. ‘Funf shilling’ said Loudon, ‘that’s the trouble in trying to speak a language you don’t really understand.’
He did rather better than one of the regular court spectators who, when no interpreter could be found and presumably sniffing a few pounds, volunteered to act in another German case. Unfortunately his ability was taken as read. This lack of testing was cruelly exposed from the opening words. ‘Ask him if he was drunk’, said the clerk. ‘Voss you drunk?’ barked the soi-disant interpreter in what he deemed to be a thick German accent.
Things went downhill so fast that the interpreter ended up with an afternoon in the cells for contempt.
It was at Bow Street that I played a small but heroic part in the struggle for justice. I forget who the magistrate was: it cannot have been David Hopkin who spoke fluent Italian and once, to keep himself amused, tried to get me to conduct my mitigation in the language. ‘I could do it in French,’ I volunteered. ‘No, Italian, Mr Morton, Italian.’ I said something like ‘Mille scusi’, which he regarded as sufficient.
This time, however, the Italian interpreter made no impression and turned in despair to the clerk saying, ‘I can’t make him understand a word. He comes from a very remote region and speaks only a dialect.’
The solicitors’ pit was between the bench and the dock and, as I had just returned from a few days on the Costa del Crime, I twigged what was going on. I passed a note saying, ‘It’s because she’s talking to him in Spanish’. I never received the credit I thought I deserved for averting yet another miscarriage of justice.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor