The right to use NZSL in legal proceedings

The NZSL Act requires that, in specified courts and tribunals, any member of the court, party or witness, counsel or any other person the presiding officer agrees to, whose first or preferred language is NZSL, may use NZSL in the proceedings. If so, a competent NZSL interpreter must be made available (at departmental cost). This is to ensure that Deaf people have equitable access to justice.

34. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 guarantees the right to effective participation in criminal proceedings through:

  • the right to use an interpreter (section 24(g))
  • the right to a fair trial (section 25(a))
  • the right to the observance of the principles of natural justice (section 27(1)).

35. At all stages of the interview process, where Deaf people come into contact with the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 requires law enforcement officers to make sign language interpreters available to a Deaf person. Defendants eligible for legal aid are also able to obtain the assistance of interpreters.

36. Eleven submitters made comments on this section of the NZSL Act. Submitters to the review reported both positive and negative experiences in the legal setting:

  • the NZSL Act was largely seen by submitters as successful in ensuring that NZSL is used in legal proceedings when a Deaf person is involved (Submission 27). Most courts were seen by submitters as trying to meet their statutory obligation to arrange interpreters
  • the effectiveness of providing NZSL interpreters was seen, by some, as being hindered by the insufficient number of qualified interpreters, variability in the quality of interpreting, and by some administrative inconsistencies (Submissions 7, 25)
  • some submitters said that it is unclear between Police, Justice and Corrections in regards to who should pay for each interpreter service (Submissions 5, 21)
  • two submitters also stated that when a Deaf person is in court there is more to consider than just ensuring that a NZSL interpreter is provided, and that court staff need training in the use of in NZSL interpreters and communicating with Deaf people (Submissions 5, 27)
  • some submitters saw the need for more awareness training for court staff, Judges and Police about Deaf people’s right to access NZSL (Submissions 1, 19, 22, and 32)
  • monitoring of NZSL interpreting in courts, and accountability, were also identified by submitters as concerns (Submissions 2, 8, 25, and 39).

37. In 2006 the Ministry of Justice issued instructions to courts and tribunals identifying the qualifications for a “competent interpreter” and the legal proceedings where it will pay for such a NZSL interpreter.[1] The Ministry of Justice consulted the Sign Language Interpreters Association New Zealand when developing this material. For the most part, the Ministry of Justice’s instructions appear to be working. However, the Human Rights Commission is aware of several cases where the entitlement to NZSL interpreter services at court has not been met.

38. Five submitters to the review were aware of situations where non-qualified interpreters were being used in court (Submissions 2, 7, 12, 15, and 25).

39. “Competent” is defined by the Ministry of Justice as: holding a Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting or equivalent overseas qualification, having at least two years of professional experience, and being a full member of the Sign Language Interpreters Association of New Zealand.[2]

40. Four submitters said that the reference to “equivalent overseas qualification” needs to be revisited, because NZSL is specific to New Zealand (Submissions 2, 7, 15, 32).

41. There is also an issue regarding timing and Deaf people’s lack of knowledge of processes required. The Ministry of Justice is not always given sufficient notice by the Deaf person to arrange an interpreter. It requests a “reasonable” notice period to arrange a NZSL interpreter, although interpreters are often arranged at short notice. Some submitters expected NZSL interpreters to be immediately available or were unaware of how to request an interpreter (Submissions 8, 27, 37). Such expectations can result in Deaf people turning up to court with no NZSL interpreter available.

42. With low numbers of NZSL interpreters, there are only a small number of interpreters with the specified minimum levels of competency. This can be an issue when translating technical language eg in medical and legal settings. Several submitters felt that NZSL interpreters who work in courts should have specialised training and mentoring, as they need to have a good understanding of legal language and court processes (Submissions 2, 7, 8). Victoria University of Wellington is currently running a pilot post-graduate course through the Deaf Studies Unit to provide specialised medical and legal knowledge in NZSL and equip interpreters for work in these specialised areas.

43. The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing its interpreter policies and its associated publication. Its new instructions to courts are due to be released on 1 October 2011. These include clear instructions on how to apply to have a NZSL interpreter present at a court hearing.

44. The Ministry of Justice is also developing a complaints mechanism, which will allow the Ministry to identify the courts, localities and situations where its instructions are not being met, and to take appropriate action.

45. Technological advances, such as video remote interpreting, have the potential to alleviate time delays and address the supply and competency of interpreters in courts. The Ministry of Justice has recently initiated audio-visual links in courts in relation to defendants in prison custody. Such technology could be adapted for the use of NZSL interpreters.

Use of NZSL in other stages of the criminal justice process

46. The right to have a NZSL interpreter at other stages of the criminal justice process, including police interviews, pre-court meetings and in Corrections settings, is provided for by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

47. Some submitters said that a NZSL interpreter had been provided free-of-charge in these other stages of the criminal justice process (Submissions 2, 7, 9). A number of other submitters said that this had only happened sometimes (Submissions 15, 21).

48. Several Deaf students reported positive experiences with Police (Submission 16).

49. The submissions indicate that there are still gaps in the justice system where Deaf people do not have access to services using NZSL (Submissions 21, 22). For example, it was commented on that Police did not provide an interpreter when a Deaf person reports a crime (Submissions 2, 21, 39).

50. A number of submitters noted a general lack of NZSL access, and Deaf cultural awareness, in the prison system (Submissions 5, 12, 15, 19, 21). Another submitter reported that one prison is demonstrating excellent practice (Submission 21).


[2]    Source: Using New Zealand Sign Language in Courts and Tribunals, Ministry of Justice (May 2006).










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