What to do as an interpreter when the attorney makes a serious mistake.

November 11, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today.  This happened to me many years ago and made me think about my professional and ethical boundaries as a court interpreter.

It all started when I was hired by an attorney to interpret during a final decree of dissolution of marriage hearing. In other words, I was retained to interpret in court for a person who was getting a divorce.  I had never worked with this attorney before (or since) but I had seen him many times at different courthouses running from one courtroom to the next. He was a general practitioner who spoke Spanish, advertised on TV, and had a lot of cases.  He called me, we agreed on my fee, and we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse right outside the courtroom some thirty minutes before the hearing.  I arrived first and about ten or fifteen minutes later the attorney showed up accompanied by his client.  Again, keep in mind that the attorney spoke Spanish.  After the introductions, I asked the client the standard questions I am sure you all ask when you just met the non-English speaker:  full name (for spelling purposes because there are no grammar rules when it comes to a person’s name) country of origin (for accent, regional expressions, and general vocabulary) academic background (to assess the individual’s mastery of the target language) and general health-related questions (in case the person may have a special request due to hearing problems for example)  He answered all these questions to my satisfaction, and added that he “…had already discussed everything with (his) lawyer…(and) …everything was clear and in order…”  The attorney, who was present during the exchange, confirmed in Spanish everything his client said.  It was going to be an easy assignment.

When it was time for the hearing all three of us went inside the courtroom.  As soon as I came in I noticed the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiff. I didn’t see the other party or her attorney. I asked my client about it, and he informed me that the other party was not going to appear. That she had been given notice by publication because she wasn’t at her last known address anymore, and that his client would probably be awarded sole custody of the children born to the marriage despite the fact that they were with the mother at an unknown location.  This happens often, and I wasn’t complaining. The hearing was going to be even shorter. Boy I was glad I had successfully negotiated a generous minimum fee.

Next the judge came out and took the bench. The hearing started.  After the bailiff called the caption of the case and my client and I entered our appearance on the record, the judge placed the Spanish speaker petitioner under oath and began questioning him.  To my surprise, the petitioner told the judge that he and his wife had never lived together as a married couple in the United States. In fact, he told the court that his wife had never been to the U.S.

I looked at the judge and I saw that I wasn’t the only one in the courtroom that was shocked by the answers.  The judge also learned that the petitioner had never paid child support to his children. Next the judge asked the petitioner when the last time he had known the respondent’s address was. The Spanish speaker said, and I interpreted, that although he didn’t know where his wife lived, he was pretty sure he could find out because her parents still lived at the same address they had lived at for over twenty years.

With that, the judge shook his head. Looked at the attorney for a long time, and then said: “…I hereby dismiss this petition for dissolution of marriage due to lack of jurisdiction.  For this court to be able to hear this case, at some point in time the parties had to live within the judicial district as a married couple; unless without having lived within the jurisdiction, both parties voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of this court.  None of these circumstances happened in this case…” As if this wasn’t enough, addressing the petitioner, the judge added:  “…Sir, I have no doubt that your attorney will explain to you what just happened. He will also explain to you the following order: It is the order of the court that petitioner pay child support to his minor children according to the schedule applicable to this district. The child support payment will be retroactive to the time when petitioner ceased to live with the minors. I find that I have jurisdiction to enter this order because petitioner is a resident of the judicial district.  Good luck Sir…” The judge got up and exited the courtroom.  There was absolute silence. The Spanish speaker turned to his attorney and asked him what had just happened. He even remarked: “…I don’t think I am divorced yet…”  His attorney asked him to step outside the courtroom. We all did.

As we were leaving the courtroom, the attorney approached me and whispered to my ear in English: “…We better get your money from him right away. He won’t be a happy camper once he learns what just happened…” Once we were outside, the attorney told his client: “…Well, it didn’t go as we planned it, but we can fix it. I will explain everything when we get to my office…but first let’s pay the interpreter so he can go…”  The Spanish speaker pulled out some cash and with no hesitation he paid me right at the steps of the courthouse. This was a first for me, but I had done my job, so I took my fee, gave him a receipt, and said goodbye.  That was the last I heard about that case.  To this date, more than twenty years later, I still don’t know what happened.

Now, for me to arrive to the conclusion that I should get paid for my services was a no-brainer. I did my job.  The part of this situation that I had to debate in my head before I said my goodbyes was about the lawyer’s conduct and the damages caused to the petitioner by this apparent negligence.  This is how I made my decision: First, I didn’t know all the facts. I had no way to know if the attorney and his client knew that a dismissal was a possibility, but what they were really trying to do was to avoid a long and costly divorce proceeding. It could be expensive to look for the spouse back in their home country. This could have been a strategy. Maybe the lawyer really spaced out and didn’t consider the possibility of a lack of jurisdiction; maybe they were going to regroup at the office and try to either find the spouse and get her to consent to the jurisdiction of the court, or to file a divorce petition in their country.  Maybe the attorney was going to tell him that a child support order from this judge would be unenforceable back in his country, and that a child support ordered by a judge back home would involve a lesser amount that would be more in synch with the economy of the country of his children. Or maybe he was just going to apologize and refund the attorney’s fees.  The thing is that I didn’t know and I had no reason to think the worst.  Not many lawyers are willing to lose their license and reputation for a case that small. He was a big shot with TV ads and lots of clients.  Moreover, that was not my role. I had no legal, professional, or ethical grounds to do anything other than to take my money and leave.  There are legal channels for people who want to redress a controversy. The petitioner had to be the one to decide to do that, not me. The fact that he did not speak English did not mean that he was incapable to defend himself, and it certainly didn’t give me the right to get involved in a situation that was not my business. The judge didn’t get involved. He even said that he had no doubt that the attorney would explain everything to his client.  So you see, I defeated that impulse that many colleagues have to become super heroes, and I stayed out of it. Of course, if subpoenaed, I would have testified to what I saw and heard, but that is different. To this day I believe that I did the right thing and I would like to hear from you to see if you agree or disagree. I also invite you to share with all of us other situations where you have faced ethical or professional issues and the way you resolved them.

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§ 7 Responses to What to do as an interpreter when the attorney makes a serious mistake.

  • Vinka Valdivia says:

    I hate to say this, but I think the justifications you used were probably as a way to assuage your guilt about earning money in a situation where it seems pretty clear that the petitioner was taken advantage of. While it is true that some English-speaking clients may have found themselves in the same situation as this attorney’s client as far as not understanding, with Spanish-speaking clients there is a much greater likelihood due to cultural reasons for them not to question authority and someone who supposedly knows better than they. You are right that ethically you couldn’t really speak up and involve yourself, but I wonder if something could have been done so that this type of injustice wouldn’t be repeated. It obviously disturbed your conscience for you to remember this all these years later. Also, I may have accepted less money from the petitioner in such a circumstance, as I also made exceptions for people filing for bankruptcy; it just seems like the right thing to do.

    • Aurora Bello - Interpreter and Translator says:

      I disagree with your statement: “assuage your guilt about earning money in a situation where it seems pretty clear that the petitioner was taken advantage of”, because

      1) The interpreter, Tony, is not the attorney doing a lousy job or “taking advantage” of anyone;

      2) As professional interpreters –like Tony–, we are owed our wages. Tony entered into a contractual agreement with the attorney; he did his job and deserves to be paid.

      (I don’t understand this mentally of adjusting one’s wages based on the outcome of a cause, particularly when I do a pretty good job and I work as an interpreter to earn a living).

      I think the right thing to do, is to ALWAYS DO a phenomenal interpretation job! And get paid for it.

  • […] Dear colleagues: In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today…  […]

  • Lionel says:

    Tony….it is a tough situation indeed. I must confess I have suffered a similar predicament. I once interpreted for a defense attorney who advised his client to accept a guilty plea that involved a crime of moral turpitude, that despite my lack of formal legal training but empirical knowledge of the Law, I could tell it was very erroneous advise. The defendant pleaded guilty and I don’t know what happened to that person but it is an incident that I cannot erase from my mind.

  • marzolian says:

    Tony, my first thought is that I would probably do as you have done, and would have also been bothered by it for a long time.

    It would be different if, for example, (a) the attorney did something that was totally unethical and took unfair advantage of his client, (b) the client was totally unaware, and (c) you were in a position to speak up. But that’s not what you saw this time.

    The client was clearly aware that his attorney didn’t do his job as promised, and there is a reasonable chance that the attorney remedied those errors after you left.

    One question, though: you mention the possibility that he could “… lose [his] license and reputation for a case that small.” How realistic was that?

    This reminds me of a lawyer I heard about in Venezuela many years ago, who supposedly told everyone: “I have never lost a case. My clients sometimes, but me: never!”

  • Judith Kenigson Kristy says:

    Hi Tony, I don’t have any problems with what you did in terms of “non-intervention” – that’s a proper ethical decision for an interpreter and, although troubling for our human sensibilities, it falls in the general category of “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” – i.e. we have no control or obligation in regard to people’s unfortunate life experiences (as long as no crime is occurring in our presence that we have to report). If it’s any consolation, you might consider this wise advice I once received from an Al-Anon mentor: “Everybody has their own Higher Power (to deal with life’s troubles)… and guess what – it’s not YOU!”
    The only problem I have is the part about accepting a wad of cash directly from the lawyer’s client. I think it’s better to try to make sure we are always paid by the attorney (or the court), not the person (his client) for whom we have interpreted, in order to avoid any perception of conflict of interest or partiality. I know there’s only a subtle difference (in the end, the money comes from the same source) but I think it’s a better practice in terms of abiding by the canons of ethics. I would probably have told the attorney to expect my invoice and walked away. I always include in my contracts a phrase to the effect that payment of my fee is not contingent upon my client’s receiving payment by any third party (i.e. his client); so whether his client was happy or not, it would be the obligation of the lawyer to pay me. In this case, there were extenuating circumstances and I doubt there would be any ethical repercussions, but in other circumstances, accepting money directly from a litigant could be problematic. Sometimes it’s all about appearances.

  • Siddhi says:

    Tony, I completely agree with the situation. With my experience as an Attorney back home and now as an Interpreter, if we look at the other side of the scenario, the judge was familiar with this type of situation where petitioner expects an expatriate order in absence of the respondent.and so posed such questions to the the petitioner. On the other hand the attorney to gather with the petitioner, might have filed the petition for dissolution of marriage with anticipated dismissal. Sometimes people just try to take a chance and so why the attorney should worry of trying something for which he is getting his fees. I have come across certain cases while doing the interpretation and found that some negligent attorneys don’t even put effort to help there client, they do not spend time to prepare their documents to prove their case or any valid arguments. At that time I feel very bad because while interpreting I can easily assume the favorable required documents from the record itself and necessary supporting arguments to save the client. Sometimes it becomes nerve breaking that why the attorney can’t use certain documents or arguments? why they don’t ask certain questions? It is frustrating for me because on this side of the bench our hands are tight.

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