Representation for Immigrants and Refugee Claimants

5. Interpretation and representation

5.1 The challenges of presenting cases through interpreters

Legal aid authorities maintain data on disbursements for translation and interpretation services, but this information is not organized in a way that allows one readily to identify the percentage of cases for which such services are required. However, it is clear that this is a significant expense item for legal aid authorities, particularly in relation to refugee claims. Disbursements for these services accounted for more than 16 percent of total legal aid expenditures on immigration and refuge matters in Ontario and British Columbia in recent years (Frecker, 2002: 64). One can safely assume that such services are required in a substantial majority of cases involving refugee claimants. Respondents were asked to comment on the implications of conducting proceedings through an interpreter, and whether the presence of a representative for immigrants and refugee claimants makes any difference in the outcome of these cases.

Respondents who commented on this issue noted how difficult it is to convey the full emotional impact and nuance of testimony when it is presented through an interpreter. They also noted that special problems can arise when the interpreter is perceived by the claimant as belonging to a rival group from within the home country. Even if the individual interpreter is totally removed from the conflict in the home country, the level of distrust that exists as a result of ethnic conflicts in these countries can be profound. Some service providers also indicated that it can be difficult, especially at the case preparation stage, to get refugee claimants to divulge sensitive details about their claim when the interpreter is from the same ethnic community and the claimant is not confident that everything said will remain confidential.

Only three respondents reported incidents where they have observed representatives playing an active role in correcting or challenging the interpretation of particular testimony provided in hearings. Some respondents, particularly from the NGO sector, suggested that interpreters have an important role to play in explaining the context and cultural meaning of testimony that may otherwise be difficult for decisionmakers to understand. Other respondents, particularly among decisionmakers, took strong exception to this proposition, stating that it is imperative for interpreters to remain neutral and to confine themselves to providing an accurate translation of what witnesses say. Representatives and decisionmakers in these cases face a special challenge in finding ways to ensure that testimony is understood in its cultural context, without surrendering their core functions to interpreters.

5.2 The relationship between counsel and interpreters

According to a recent report prepared by Legal Aid Ontario, evaluating the cost-effectiveness of the Refugee Law Office in Toronto, approximately 25 percent of referrals to members of the private bar come from interpreters (MacDonald, 2001: 7). In the present study, a number of service provider respondents expressed concerns about the role played by interpreters in directing clients to particular lawyers and consultants whom the respondents consider to be offering sub-standard representation. Respondents from all regions noted that some interpreters pass out business cards of particular counsel to immigrants and refugee claimants when they attend at CIC offices for admissibility and eligibility interviews. There was a widely held belief among the respondents who raised this issue that the interpreters are receiving a commission from the counsel concerned. The respondents who raised this issue considered such a practice to be clearly unethical.

The close relationship between interpreters and counsel is not entirely a bad thing. Some lawyers and consultants have established specialized practices dealing with claims from particular countries. Interpreters and leaders from the related ethnic communities, who have come to know and trust them, will understandably refer clients to them. The ethical problem arises only when interpreters are used on a commercial basis to recruit business. The problem is especially bad when the representatives involved are providing poor quality service and taking advantage of the ignorance of newly arrived immigrants and refugee claimants about other options that are available to them.

Respondents also expressed concern that a number of individuals with limited experience as interpreters are offering their services as immigration consultants without having the requisite qualifications to do the job properly. Respondents felt that new immigrants and refugee claimants are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by these individuals, and they felt strongly that there is an urgent need to regulate these practices to eliminate abuse.

Information obtained in the interviews conducted for this study is insufficient to confirm the extent of this problem, but the concerns noted were shared among a large number of respondents in all regions. This should definitely be taken as a signal that this matter needs to be investigated more thoroughly, and that appropriate action needs to be taken to deal with the problems identified.