NATSILS urges govt to act on interpreter commitment

BY AMY MCQUIREAPRIL 3, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister for Families, and Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin… the Gillard government has not responded to calls for a national interpreter framework.

NATIONAL: Governments have been dragging their feet for two decades on how they address the lack of interpreter services for Indigenous people in the justice system, and it has only resulted in more blackfellas behind bars, the nation’s peak Aboriginal legal body says.

In March last year, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) and the NT Interpreter Service submitted a report to the Attorney General department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous affairs (FaHCSIA) calling for expanded interpreter services for Indigenous people facing the justice system.

In 1991, a Commonwealth Parliamentary inquiry highlighted to lack of interpreter services, labelling it a “prime example of government insensitivity”.

“It is disappointing that almost 20 years later this situation is still yet to be resolved by government,” the submission says. The submission made five recommendations for the federal, state and territory governments to work together under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery.

One of the recommendations called for the implementation of a national framework on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interpreters.

FaHCSIA responded to the submission by stating it would begin development of the framework towards the end of 2011. But NATSILS says it has not heard anything since.

NATSILS chair Shane Duffy told Tracker the situation was appalling.

“There’s been little progress on behalf of government to deal with this situation,” Mr Duffy told Tracker.

He said he has not heard anything from FaHCSIA since the commitment to develop a national framework.

“We’ve made several phone calls to FaHCSIA asking about the NPA, and we’ve received no phone call back,” Mr Duffy said.

“…We’ve heard nothing and they received this submission a year ago.

“In that whole period, we haven’t had the common courtesy of anyone contacting us, to give us any feedback on the progression of the framework under the NPA.

“It’s been 20 years since the Royal Commission (into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody)’s recommendations… yet we haven’t seen any action from state or territory governments, or the Commonwealth, as the leader of the NPA through COAG, to actually implement the recommendations, to address the dire need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interpreters.”

Mr Duffy said a lack of interpreter services is a major factor in high Indigenous incarceration rates. The submission states that it can also result in miscarriages of justice.

“As a result of the current lack of… interpreter services… those involved in the justice system can be forced to use unaccredited and unqualified lay people as interpreters,” the submission says.

“In the past, defence counsel have occasionally been forced to call on other prisoners to serve as interpreters for accused persons. Such an arrangement has the potential to result in serious miscarriages of justice and violations of human rights.”

The significant rates of hearing loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can also compound the communication difficulties Indigenous people have when encountering the justice system.

The submission also notes the international human rights obligations Australia has signed up to through UN conventions and declarations.

“I’m not saying this is the only thing that will reduce incarceration,” Mr Duffy said.

“I can suggest that it is one of the mechanism which can reduce it. It can keep the debt down on the cost of imprisoning people, and we can start looking at diverting those funds to deliver true access to justice – like to social services, into rehabilitation services, drug and alcohol services, counselling services.”

A departmental spokesperson for FaHCSIA said it would still work with organisations like NATSILS to develop the framework. But the spokesperson said the onus was on the states and territories.

“State and Territory governments have primary responsibility for the criminal justice system and for ensuring that clients coming into contact with that system have access to interpreting services if they need assistance communicating in English,” the spokesperson said.

“FaHCSIA has held initial consultations with the interpreting industry sector, including the Kimberley Interpreting Service and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service and other stakeholders, to develop the framework.

“These consultations will continue over the course of 2012, and the government hopes to finalise the framework by the end of this year.”

FaHCSIA says it has provided funding to assist Northern Territory interpreter services.

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