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A judge’s gavel.Nikolay Mamluke/Getty Images/iStockphoto

An Ontario judge has blasted the province for failing to remedy a long-standing shortage of qualified interpreters in the courts.

Frustrated over an impaired driving case he felt compelled to toss out, Ontario Court Justice Peter Tetley said the number of cases being adversely affected is at an intolerable level.

"It is unfair to the public," Justice Tetley said. "It is unfair to the defendant who hires counsel … Hopefully, someone with authority will do something, or they – and I suppose it's the government of the day – will have to face the unpalatable consequences of circumstances like this."

The defendant in the case, Singh Chohan, allegedly had three times the allowable level of alcohol in his bloodstream when he was arrested.

"In fact, it was in the unconscionable range," Justice Tetley told him.

"It's amazing that you could even stand, let alone operate a motor vehicle … That would suggest to me that there is a significant public interest in ensuring that this matter, and matters of this kind, are tried on their merits."

Faced with an influx of defendants with an inadequate understanding of English, the province has been struggling for years to deal with the shortage of interpreters.

Mr. Chohan's lawyer, Peter Lindsay, said the right to a fair trial guarantees that defendants be capable of comprehending the case against them.

"In a multicultural society like Canada, it is completely unacceptable that there is such a shortage of proper interpreters in major languages, such us Punjabi and Mandarin," Mr. Lindsay said.

"His Honour Justice Tetley is one of many judges who have complained about the problem of shortages of court interpreters, but the problem remains," he said. "Quite frankly, it is an embarrassment to our system of justice."

Another Ontario Court judge, Justice Casey Hill, told a conference last year that anxious judges are even poaching interpreters from one another to avoid throwing out criminal charges.

"The competition between courts has become almost cutthroat," he said. "There just aren't enough to go around."

Justice Hill said that approximately 150,000 hours of interpretation services are required in Ontario every year. Yet, there are only 25 full-time interpreters and about 800 freelancers, whose level of competency varies widely.

He said that training is still virtually non-existent and competency tests are unreliable.

To worsen the situation, interpreters have become alienated by controversial attempts to test their proficiency.

A large number failed, causing many to cut back on their workload or abandon court work altogether.

A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General, Brendan Crawley, said that while the courts are consistently provided with qualified interpreters, it also "recognizes the need to continue to make improvements as the demand for court interpretation evolves and grows."

Testing programs are being strengthened and pay rates increased to secure a more stable complement of interpreters, he said.

Mr. Crawley said the ministry has a registry of 372 accredited and 356 conditionally accredited court interpreters, representing 146 languages. The ministry is also aggressively seeking recruits at university campuses, law schools and professional organizations, he said.

In the Chohan case, a Crown prosecutor conceded that the prosecution should be stayed, noting that delays caused largely by the lack of a Punjabi interpreter had pushed it past a constitutionally set limit.

An interpreter who was finally obtained on the day the case was thrown out, Rajinder Singh, told Justice Tetley there are only five accredited Punjabi court interpreters in the entire province – three full-time and two freelancers.