An asylum appeal by an Eritrean woman, initially rejected by an immigration judge, has been overturned by the Upper Tribunal after it emerged the court interpreter embarked on a political rant to the woman’s barrister at the bus stop outside court afterwards.
The case is TS (interpreters) Eritrea  UKUT 352 (IAC). Complaints about the quality of the interpreter were made during the original First-tier hearing. As a matter of good practice, the solicitors had employed an interpreter to attend the tribunal to interpret for the appellant and her barrister before the hearing and then to stay for the hearing. It was alleged by the solicitor’s interpreter and the appellant herself that the official court interpreter was not interpreting everything that the appellant said.
Problems with the interpreter during and after the hearing
Several notes were passed to the appellant’s barrister by the solicitor’s interpreter and the barrister applied for the case to be adjourned and re-heard. This application was refused by the judge hearing the case, understood by Free Movement to be now retired judge Geraint Jones QC.
Dismissing the appeal, the First-tier judge was implicitly critical of the attendance of an additional interpreter, emphasising the cost to the public purse. The judge also suggested that the application by barrister conducting the case was “manoeuvring” tainted by “a whiff of tactics” to lay the ground for an appeal if the case should be dismissed.
That was not the end of it. After the hearing, the court interpreter had been waiting at the bus stop at Hatton Cross and, when the barrister by coincidence arrived there, the interpreter approached the barrister in a “confrontational or aggressive manner”. She claimed that the appellant had been lying as the interpretation was accurate, that Eritrea was safe, the war is over, the borders are open, the people are celebrating, there is no danger there, and the appellant faced no danger there at all. The interpreter added for good measure that she felt sorry for the judge who has to deal with these types of case.
This was recorded in a witness statement by the barrister and submitted to the First-tier judge, but it never seems to have reached him.
Appeal allowed by Upper Tribunal
The Upper Tribunal found that the problems about interpretation at the hearing itself alone would probably have been insufficient to overturn the decision because the judge’s reasons for dismissing the appeal were founded mainly on alleged discrepancies in the written evidence.
But the comments of the interpreter after the hearing were so concerning that the appeal had to be allowed. These uninvited comments
raise very grave doubts as to the interpreter’s independence and impartiality. That in turn raises serious questions as to whether the interpreter was doing her best to translate what the appellant was saying to the judge. Seen in this light, the complaints of the appellant’s interpreter and of the appellant herself at the hearing assume significant force.
The appeal was therefore allowed and the appeal sent back to the First-tier to be re-heard by a different judge and interpreter.
Complacency about interpreters and distrust of appellants
The right outcome was eventually reached but there are unsatisfactory features to the Upper Tribunal determination.
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There is nothing on the face of the determination to suggest that the interpreter in question was to be prevented from being used in other cases in future.
Linked to that, the determination offers no acknowledgement that the problem here was not incompetence but malice on the part of the court interpreter. The only reason the problems in this case were treated seriously is because of the chance encounter at the bus stop. How many times have interpreters with political views deliberately undermined an appellant’s case because the interpreter disapproves of a refugee’s conduct? Indeed, how many times has this particular unnamed and unknown interpreter gotten away with it? There is nothing in the determination about how complaints about malevolent interpreters might be properly investigated.
The very serious allegations of the First-tier judge against counsel are recited but no further comment is made. In fact, the headnote (which reads as if for a different case) says that where a complaint is made the judge must consider whether the complaint “appears to be motivated by a desire to have the hearing aborted, rather than by any genuine material concern over the standard of interpretation” and goes on to say that “preventing a party or representative from behaving in an intimidating or oppressive way towards the interpreter” is part of the judge’s function.
It is abundantly clear with hindsight that the First-tier judge’s allegations against the barrister in this case were utterly unfounded and the Upper Tribunal should have very clearly said as much. The appellant’s barrister was courageous and entirely correct, we now know, in raising the complaints at the hearing. To make matters worse, the tribunal sees fit to say “there is no reason to doubt the contents of the statement” made by the barrister. Indeed. So little reason, in fact, that there was simply no need to say this. It only serves to admits the possibility that the barrister might have deliberately lied.
The tribunal might be keen to avoid tactical complaints about interpreters becoming commonplace. But there is no evidence to suggest that is a problem. The tribunal’s attitude is symptomatic of its distrust for appellants and their lawyers and the facts of the particular case actually suggest that problems with interpreters can and should be taken very seriously indeed. The determination, and particularly the official headnote, seems an inadequate and even complacent response to a potentially very serious issue.