Flawed Court Interpretations

"It is obviously of fundamental importance to ensure that translations in criminal trials are of an appropriately high standard."

Justice Mark Cooper, NZ High Court Judge 

Under the NZ judicial system, anyone convicted and sentenced by a District Court or High Court may file an appeal on any of the following grounds:

  • Miscarriage of Justice
  • Public Interest
  • New Evidence
  • Point of Law

The statements of an accused or a witness made in court may actually be given through an interpreter, whose interpretation, if fraught with mistakes and inaccuracies, may result in miscarriage of justice where the right to fair trial is deprived, thus constituting a ground for appeal.  Such inaccuracies may stem from:

  • Flawed interpretation
  • Omission
  • Creative interpretation, i.e. adding extra material not in the original

How court interpretation is done in NZ Courts

In a NZ trial where an accused or a witness, being a Chinese with little or no knowledge of the English language, is to give evidence, it will be given through interpretation performed by an interpreter, which will be the basis upon which the trial judge, the prosecution and defence counsel and the jury assess the evidence.   An inadequate grasp of both the English and Chinese languages on the part of an interpreter, and the resulting flaws and omissions in the interpretation, will throw a trial into total disarray with the judge, the jury and the counsel, knowing only the English language and oblivious to the discrepancies between the original and interpreted evidence, not able to adequately perform their respective functions.   Such flaws will mean distortion in the evidence, thus misleading the judge and the jury, and doing disservice to a fair and just trial.   Not only will the court’s decision be affected, the interest of the accused and the integrity of the whole NZ judicial system will also suffer in the end.

Besides the evidence of the accused, all the statements put forth by the prosecution will also be interpreted as the trial progresses.   The accused, however, will be deprived of his right to know, and to cast doubt on, the statements actually made against him, if he is misled by misinterpreted statements.

As NZ’s Ministry of Justice does not have a comprehensive system for the recruitment, training, assessment and supervision of court interpreters, it is not uncommon for court interpretation being performed haphazardly, with some interpreters not even able to adequately comprehend and express in simple English.   It is therefore incumbent on the government to address a situation so riddled with flaws as in court interpretation, if the spirit of human rights and the interest of justice are to be properly served.

How we deal with flawed court interpretation

Serious flaws in court interpretation will result in miscarriage of justice and are injurious to public interest, contravening the right to a fair and just trial as provided by section 27 of NZ Bill of Rights Act.   This will constitute a ground for appeal, which, if successful, will cause a court to order a retrial of the case, and in exceptional case, to quash the conviction.

On receipt of a brief, we will conduct a thorough examination of all the evidence of the case, and the audio recordings and notes of evidence obtained from court of the whole trial, and if required, of the condition under which the accused’s statements were taken through an interpreter at the police station.