Court for Deaf People Need Not be Frightening, but Avoid the Cringe Factor

by Daniel B. Swartz, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12, EIPA


I have been a court interpreter for many years now, I guess better than 20 of the 32 years I have been interpreting.  I love legal interpreting, but I don’t necessarily have a good feeling about the things I see in court.  I have interpreted all sorts of trials, and been in various courts, including family, criminal, and civil.  You can add administrative courts to that, as I have interpreted unemployment and workers compensations cases as well.

As an interpreter in a courtroom, I am an officer of the court.  This means I have an obligation to uphold justice and render the interpreted message faithfully.  It also means I must know my limits, most critical of which is not to provide opinion.  This means no insertion of my bias, and not providing legal counsel or advice.

picture of courtroom

Court is Not a Scary Place

This post will by no means be an exhaustive explanation of legal interpreting, or appropriate behavior in court by all parties.  When I thought about writing this short blog on court, what I wanted to touch on most is what I call the “cringe factor.”  Remember, I can’t express my opinion in court, nor alter the message.  But here, on this blog, I can give you, the deaf person, a few pointers.

Lessening the Cringe Factor

Oh, what is the cringe factor?  It is the things that litigants do that cause me to cringe.  Things that are said or done that make me roll my eyes (to myself, not visible), or cause my head to explode (not literally, I hope). Sadly, the cringe factor occurs more frequently, in my experience, with deaf litigants as opposed to hearing ones.  I attribute that to lack of exposure to the legal system, whether it be limited education on the subject, limited environmental bombardment, and inexperience (a good thing).  By the way, environmental bombardment is what I call the constant “education” that we get via what is happening in the foreground and background of our lives.  It could be something as simple as watching a court TV show (Perry Mason is my favorite), or as mundane and droning as the background chatter on a news channel, an overhead cocktail conversation, or your parents bemoaning the merits of a current legal trial over dinner (while the kids sit silently and take it all in – perhaps?).

What makes me cringe? What can you do to lessen the cringe factor should you have to appear in court?

  1. Speaking when not spoken to.  Silence!  Speaking out of turn really pisses off the judge.
  2. You have an attorney, but you insist on telling your story.  Why in the world did you hire an attorney?!
  3. Not having an attorney (pro se) when you really need one.  Abraham Lincoln was right – “He who represents himself has a fool as a client.”
  4. Not answering the question posed – going completely off message (if you don’t understand the interpreter, demand one that is qualified).  Pay close attention.  Then answer the question given and nothing more.
  5. When a yes-no question is asked, you give an exhaustive answer because YOU want to “tell your story.”  KISS – Keep it Short and Sweet (there are other less kind variations of this).
  6. Being stubborn and simply not listening to the advice of your attorney.  You paid good money for them, so trust their advice.
  7. Becoming emotional, yelling, talking to opposing litigant, making a scene.  If you want to make a lasting, negative impression on the judge/jury, this will do it.
  8. Dressing for court like you are going to work out at the gym.  They may say that justice is blind, but the judge isn’t.
  9. Forgetting that the judge is the ultimate authority.  One thing I always remember is that the judge is always right.  If he tells me to jump, I ask how high and in which direction.  The courtroom is the judge’s “house.” S/he is queen/king.  Always remember that.

Good luck. Remember to respect the legal system.  And I hope I don’t see you in court (nothing personal).

1 reply
  1. Pat Mccracken
    Pat Mccracken says:

    I agreed to all nine factors. The court room is not a scary place to go, just follow nine factors above, and you will be fine.


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