A new bill requiring judges in Canada to be bilingual is eliciting reactions like “Excusez-moi?”
A line in the bill says that appointees to the Supreme Court of Canada should be able to speak the country’s two official languages, English and French, without the aid of abilingual interpreter. But is a law requiring judges in Canada to be bilingual unfair to unilingual legal minds?
Arguments for the Bill
Canada’s House of Commons recently passed Bill C-232, which states that only qualified judges “who understand French and English without the assistance of an interpreter” may be appointed to the Supreme Court.
It makes sense to want bilingual judges in Canada. 1988’s Official Languages Act ensured that Canadian citizens have a right to trial in either of the two official languages of the country.
Proponents of the bill argue that a Canadian judge is not fully versed in the law until he or she has read all jurisprudence in both English and French. They also argue that interpreters can miss subtle nuances of the language when interpreting in court, and the best legal minds in the country should be able to understand the intricacies of the case immediately.
Supporters of Bill C-232 also note that all of the current Canadian Supreme Court justices except for one are fluent in both English and French.
Arguments Against the Bill
Many Canadian citizens of all political affiliations are disputing the bill. While many judges in Canada are bilingual, not everyone is — and should top legal minds be automatically disqualified from serving on the country’s highest court just because they are unilingual?
Moreover, citizens from the eastern provinces of Canada are more likely to be bilingual than citizens from western provinces. More French is spoken in the east, while areas west of Ontario have a higher percentage of residents who speak English only. Canadians against the bill argue that this new legislation could mean many top judges in western Canada could never ascend to the Supreme Court.
Interpreters Are the Solution
Bill C-232 is rigid on eliminating interpreters from court. Proponents of the bill say that court interpreters are unreliable, and that judges should be able to understand legal arguments without any assistance from linguists.
However, even judges who are mostly bilingual often have not mastered specialized vocabulary and nuances of the language needed for understanding undoubtedly complex legal cases.
A judge’s job is to hear cases and interpret the law. A court interpreter’s job is to befluent in two or more languages and also to have knowledge of vocabulary specific to legal situations and the subtle nuances of languages that make being truly bilingual so difficult. The Supreme Court of Canada should be open to employing court interpreters for the benefit of judges as well as all others in the courtroom.
It now falls to the Senate to vote down this legislation that would make it a requirement for judges in Canada to be bilingual.