Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, interpreters mainly worked using two channels – telephone and face to face. Most settings used these two methods on a regular basis. In the absence of a physical interpreter, custody sergeants would regularly charge detainees using a TI interpreter, doctors would dial in to obtain a qualified interpreter for their patient assessment.

Video interpreting was predominantly used in the judicial sector, and even then, it came accompanied with a big sigh and eyeroll. I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions that a live feed to a courtroom or side room for counsel conference of a detainee held on remand in prison went without a hitch. There was inevitably an issue with connection, the line was fuzzy, the sound was echo-y – simply put, video interpreting was a pain. It was under-funded, under-used and people who needed to use it were under-trained.

What changed?

Then came Covid19. And with it, physical distance became an issue. Rather, proximity was frowned upon and alternatives needed to be sought out – pronto. So, the existing platform called CVP was rushed to be rolled out across as many facilities as possible, as fast as possible. In an article updated on July 1st 2020, the website states that: ‘The Cloud Video Platform is being extended to civil and family courts. Over 120 courts are set to have more reliable video tech that improves remote court hearings. The roll out is part of HMCTS recovery plan to ensure justice continues to be served. It follows the successful implementation of the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) across 60 crown courts and 93 magistrates’ courts. The technology has been used in some 3,600 crown court hearings and more than 7,000 overnight remand cases heard by magistrates.”. All of a sudden, the system that everyone loved to hate was being utilised on a daily basis.

Of course, the government-provided Covid19 funding meant the MOJ was able to provide additional training to all users, so the interface became smoother, joining instructions were clearer and seemingly overnight, a thus-far rickety system was overhauled into a functional and essential part of ensuring that justice was served.

Sounds too perfect to be true.

However, it hasn’t been purely smooth sailing. On 15th of April 2020, the Kent Online newspaper filed a report on the case of an attempted murder hearing which had to be adjourned due to technical difficulties. “(Defendant) Dinh appeared in the courtroom via video link from Elmley Prison in Sheppey, with his interpreter on the phone. The judge and barristers were present on Skype. But despite repeated attempts by staff, the 51-year-old’s Vietnamese interpreter was unable to hear Judge Griffith-Jones or either prosecution and defence counsel. The judge therefore decided to bring the plea and trial preparation hearing to an end, asking his clerk to pass on his apology to the interpreter and Dinh. “We just cannot go on like this,” he said, before adding: “I am very sorry about this but I have to say I had grave reservations as to whether we would be able to operate in this way with an interpreter.”. A trial was provisionally fixed to start in September.

What does this mean for the interpreter?

Well, for one, you must get used to the idea that going forward, you may be appearing via video-link more frequently than in person. Despite technical failures like the one detailed above, the last few months have shown that it is not always necessary for all parties to be present physically, and naturally it is more cost-efficient to implement justice in this manner. Judges are increasingly leaning towards so-called ‘hybrid hearings’ where attendance is a mixture of in-person and remote.

Challenges for the interpreter

However, as an interpreter, you must have the confidence to present yourself as a professional and speak up if you are having technical difficulties. Judges are often very understanding of all who join in remotely in these circumstances, so don’t be afraid to let them know if you have a problem hearing or communication with any party. In this kind of setting, the onus is on the individual to ensure we do everything possible to pave the way for a fair and just hearing.

Similarly, we must ensure that the area we are working from is as professional and non-disruptive as possible. Background noise, photos on the wall, bad lighting, household noises like doorbells and washing machines can all provide at best a distraction, at worst a serious misstep towards being held in contempt of the court.

Finally, tardiness will not be tolerated. Courts often send joining instructions the day before a hearing, so make sure you log in well in advance to ensure a prompt start time. And be prepared to use other methods as the same time – barristers often utilise group WhatsApp calls, for example, to facilitate simultaneous interpreting without disrupting the flow of the hearing. Flexibility is very much the order of the day.

On balance, it’s a positive step

In summary, video interpreting is here to stay, whether we like it or not. If you don’t get on with technology, there are plenty of opportunities to brush up on your skills. And, if after a day spent dealing with technical issues, static and feedback during transmission and witnesses who speak too fast and in jargon, you feel a bit deflated, look on the bright side – no one knows you’re wearing tracksuit bottoms and fluffy socks as long as your top half is as smart as court attire rules dictate. Things don’t get much better than that.

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