The Right to an Interpreter Before the Courts

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February 21 is International Mother Language Day. This is a good time to recall some important principles regarding the right to a legal interpreter in a multilingual society such as Canada.

Understanding and being understood

In Canada, people involved in a court action have the right to an interpreter if they do not understand or speak the language being used. This applies both to people involved in a criminal trial (the accused, the victim and witnesses) as well as people involved in a civil trial. This right is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and aims to ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly by the courts.

However, this right applies specifically to the trial. Other rules may apply at earlier stages, such as during a police investigation.

Free of charge in criminal trials

The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of the Person guarantees the right to the assistance of an interpreter, free of charge, for anyone accused of a crime who does not understand the language of the trial, or who is deaf.

However, in civil trials, a person who wishes to be assisted by an interpreter must generally assume the costs, except for some persons from indigenous communities, such as Cree, Inuit and Naskapi, for whom the government assumes the cost.