Interpreters for deaf in courts: A sign of a more inclusive future?

With not many offering interpretation of legal matters or having the skills to break down complex legalese, a team of sign language interpreters seems determined to offer its expertise to those in need.
sign language and judiciary
sign language and judiciary

The Delhi High Court recently witnessed heart-warming scenes when sign language specialists interpreted legal proceedings for deaf petitioners in a case.

A similar incident was seen in the Supreme Court, when an interpreter was allowed to join proceedings to assist Sarah Sunny, India's only deaf lawyer.

The top court has now directed the registry to appoint an interpreter for her to argue her case. 

These moves mark a step towards making court proceedings more accessible for persons with disabilities.

However, there exist challenges when it comes to interpreting complex legal matters for the deaf.

Barriers to assistance

Advocate Rahul Bajaj, a blind lawyer who has been championing the cause of disability rights in the legal realm, flags some of these issues.

For instance, it may amount to insult by giving them half-knowledge. Secondly, where should the camera be placed so that it is possible? Thirdly, sign language interpreters do not know legal terms and may not be able to convey properly. Lastly, court proceedings are very fast-paced so it cannot be done,” he says.

Advocate Rahul Bajaj is appearing for some of the petitioners in the Delhi High Court.
Advocate Rahul Bajaj is appearing for some of the petitioners in the Delhi High Court.

Statistics indicate that 63 million people in India have some form of hearing disability.

With not many offering interpretation of legal matters or having the skills to break down complex legalese, a team of sign language interpreters seems determined to offer its expertise to those in need.

The interpreters who assisted in the Delhi High Court hearing belong to the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI).  

Dr Renuka Rameshan, who is President of the group, acted on a requisition for interpreter facility in the High Court. 

Following deliberations with court officials, two interpreters were appointed to offer their expertise in the hearing that took place on September 26. The Court recorded the presence of the interpreters and passed directions for disbursement of their professional fees.

According to Rameshan, one of the primary challenges that interpreters face is the lack of understanding of sign language among deaf persons, as most of them are born to hearing parents.

The first language we end up learning is through exposure and the shared platform that our families provide for us. That's not the case with the deaf. It's like 90 per cent of the deaf children are born to hearing parents. There is lack of awareness and knowledge in parents and the family members,” she explains. 

Such children miss language development during the formative stage of their lives unless they go to schools and meet other deaf children. 

This point was well demonstrated in a recent hearing in a rape case before the Rajasthan High Court.

During the arguments in the bail plea of one of the accused, it came on record that at the time of recording of the survivor’s statement, she was unable to understand sign language while interacting with a sign language specialist. 

Rajasthan High Court order in a rape case.
Rajasthan High Court order in a rape case.

Another challenge is posed by the fact that persons hard of hearing from rural areas have not had exposure or met another deaf person.

There are so many deaf people that actually say that they thought they were the only deaf person in the whole world. That's a very complex thing,” says Rameshan.

And in a legal proceeding, the lack of sign language knowledge makes things even more difficult for the interpreter.

So at this point, a deaf expert is needed on the team. The process works through the deaf expert because being deaf, they understand the deaf person far better than an interpreter does. To have a system like that is going to be one of the challenges,” she underlines.

In July this year, Rameshan presented a paper at the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters Conference in South Korea discussing, among other things, the challenges interpreters face in legal cases. She also discussed the difficulties faced by women interpreters in the legal field.

Many female interpreters do not enter the legal domain, for the reasons that it can be spontaneous, time-consuming, in unfamiliar places, with strangers and most of the times, unsafe as well, posing a threat to one’s life and reputation,” she highlighted in her paper.

Unlike other countries that require an academic qualification for being certified as a legal interpreter, India doesn’t have a licensing body that renews certifications after a certain period of time. In light of the growing need for such specialists in the legal domain, keeping up with legal developments is a must.

Therefore, the interpreters have to be abreast and have to be current with the developments in the deaf community, even with the laws and legal terminology and as such,” Rameshan says.

Soudamini Pethe being felicitated by Justice Satish Chandra Sharma, Chief Justice of Delhi High Court
Soudamini Pethe being felicitated by Justice Satish Chandra Sharma, Chief Justice of Delhi High Court

Interpreting legal studies for the late Saudamini Pethe - the first deaf lawyer to have enrolled with the Bar Council of Delhi - gave Rameshan and her team the opportunity to learn new legalese and hone their skills.

Our community owes a lot to her, as we had to facilitate her classes during her LL.B. program and then also during her initial period in the courts,” reminisces Rameshan.

The team

Shivoy Sharma and Saurav Roychowdhury were the interpreters who assisted the petitioners during the hearing before the High Court. While Sharma interpreted what Justice Prathiba M Singh was saying, Roychowdhury assisted the deaf persons and interpreted for the counsels. 

Born to deaf parents, the medium of communication at Sharma's home was sign language. His life experience has conditioned him to understand the intricacies of the subject. 

Shivoy Sharma
Shivoy Sharma

Sharma, who as a computer science background, took up interpreting in one such assignment. It prompted him to think about the sheer number of engineers as against the dearth of sign language interpreters in the country. 

So if I have the skill and the deaf are appreciating and understanding it, and I'm able to understand what is happening as I've seen my parents go through different struggles, it helped me. I did it for two years, then I thought that I should get certified as well, because then we were taken to police stations and courts,” recollects Sharma.

He began interpreting for the deaf in 2018 and received a certification after training at the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Center in 2019.

Shivoy Sharma
Shivoy Sharma

Sharma emphasises on the importance of professional interpreters who can understand complex legal terms as well as the nuances of spoken language in different parts of the country. 

I'm from North India, so in spoken languages, there are different dialects also. Similarly, in sign language, there are variations and people have different language skills as well. The best practice would be that a hearing interpreter and a deaf interpreter go together so things are not lost in translation,” he says.

Tasked with the responsibility of interpreting the matter before the High Court, Sharma and his colleague Roychowdhury was at first unsure of where in the courtroom they could interpret from.

We asked the lawyer Rahul Bajaj if we could communicate with the judge (Justice Prathiba Singh) directly or via him. The judge was really welcoming, so she herself asked us to come and stand at the place where the deaf persons could see us. She was aware. Many other places, we don't see that. They question, ‘Why are you standing here? What are you doing?’” says Sharma, saying that there needs to be more awareness on the part of authorities.

A more inclusive future?

Sharma says that currently, there are 500 to 700 interpreters for thousands of deaf people. If the government takes the initiative to employ sign language interpreters and dedicates a budget for the same, more people would be inclined to join the profession, he believes.

"You know what was lovely to find is there are deaf people working in the court already. There are junior judicial assistants who are deaf. When that person heard about sign language interpreters being there, they came to the courtroom. We often don't see that there are deaf people among us from whom we can always seek guidance,” says Roychowdhury.

He recalls a heartening gesture at the end of the hearing, when the people present in the courtroom, including the judge, did a deaf applause, prompted by one of the deaf petitioners. They all beamed with joy.

"That was a little bit of deaf culture that everyone learned,” he shares. 

Roychowdury stresses on the need for deaf interpreters, especially to assist in clamorous courtroom situations. 

There's a lot of things we as interpreters also need to learn to ensure deaf people have a proper understanding of how arguments work,” he adds.

He reiterates the importance of keeping abreast with legal terminology. For example, a judge might use the term "suit" and if the interpreter doesn't know the legal connotation of the word, interpretation can turn out to be a futile exercise. 

Saurav Roychowdhury and Saudamini Pethe
Saurav Roychowdhury and Saudamini Pethe

Since we got to interpret with Saudamini (Pethe), we, in a way, learnt LLB. We studied a little bit, so we understood that there are trial courts and sessions courts and tribunals. They're different, and they have different jurisdictions, and the concept keeps changing,” he says.

A noticeable increase in legal literacy among the deaf has prompted many from the community to advocate for their rights and assert those rights in property or divorce cases. 

The knowledge over availability of interpreters and there being a mandate in law to ensure that there's an interpreter for the facilitation has given a lot more confidence to people to take the legal route,” Rameshan says. 

The Delhi High Court’s praise for the interpreters in its order passed after the hearing is a shot in the arm for proponents of equal rights and inclusivity. 

Referring to the provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2019, the Court underlined the mandatory duty of the state to provide access to information and communication technology to persons with disabilities, failing which it would be an offence. 

The law having been brought into force almost six to seven years ago, the fact that persons with disabilities are unable to enjoy even basis forms of entertainment such as watching films in cinema halls, is a cause for concern,” it stated.

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