A Courthouse by Any Other Name

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit far-fetched to compare a courthouse to Shakespeare’s famous rose, but I have to admit that after months away from court (or, should I say,  du palais de justice…our francophone neighbors certainly have a way with words, don’t they?!) when I arrived at the entrance to the Montreal palais a couple weeks ago, it felt like I was coming home. A courthouse by any other name, my friends, feels just the same.

Inside, there was the same big entranceway, the same line for security and the same friendly banter from sheriff’s officers (although, to my delight, this time around that banter was occurring in French).

Upstairs, I was at first confused that there seemed to be so many judges in the courtroom (it turns out that here, certain attorneys also wear a robe, and their outfit is differentiated from that of the judge by the color of the sash around their neck). But otherwise, business proceeded pretty much the same as normal (except, to my utter glee…in French!)

You see, I remember being scared silly, the first time I went to work as a real, live, court interpreter. And it wasn’t just the fear of being able to keep up with judges who read orders at light-speed or remembering all the words with the spotlight on me in the witness stand. The formality of the courthouse, combined with an overwhelming number of proceedings, compounds the intimidation factor.

But spend enough time in a courthouse, any courthouse, and you will begin to learn its patterns. Take family court. There we will find proceedings handling divorces, child support, domestic violence, juvenile proceedings, abuse and neglect. Yes, some terms, programs and acronyms will be different in your state, but I guarantee that if you look for the patterns, you will find them.

Allow me to summarize two for you here:

  • FM: In New Jersey, marital dissolution can be found on the FM docket, which means that you will know straightaway you are dealing with a divorced/divorcing couple. Divorcing couples with children are required to attend a seminar, which you may have the opportunity to interpret. There you will learn the process for divorce, with parties encouraged, at each stop of the way, to settle their differences outside the court. You may interpret for their mediation, for their Early Settlement Panel (where a volunteer attorney advises them as to the likely outcome of the case to help with negotiation), for their trial, and finally, their divorce. If a divorced couple with children returns to renegotiate child support or visitation after the divorce is file, they use the same FM docket number.
  • FV: In New Jersey, the “V” denotes violence. After being screened by an intake worker, a plaintiff is heard by a hearing officer, who is not quite a judge but can still hear testimony and make a recommendation that the judge then must sign in order to make it effective. The intake worker will have sent the general details of the case to the hearing officer, so you can usually get a sneak preview if you ask. If they are granted a Temporary Restraining Order, they are scheduled to return within ten days, for a trial to make that permanent (the Final Restraining Order). As long as proper service has been given to the defendant and no-one procures an adjournment, the trial goes forward and you may be in that courtroom for quite some time. But, there’s a method to the madness: First the judge gives instructions, which are always different versions of the same stuff (“these are potential consequences, would you like an attorney, are all of your witnesses ready,” etc.) Then, the plaintiff presents their case: They testify to the specifics of the incident in question and any past history of violence, and present any witnesses. Then defendant’s case, with any witnesses. Then final arguments, and then the verdict. Pro tip: Ask the clerk for a copy of the Temporary Restraining Order at the beginning. She may look at you cross-eyed until you explain that it’s to help prepare you interpret. It will contain most relevant names, addresses, and the interpreter’s gold mine: the allegations. That way testimony about a past suicide attempt or the defendant’s obscure knife collection won’t take you by surprise.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there for now. My point is, while there may be many different proceedings in a courthouse, there are not an infinite number. And the more familiar you are with them, the less scary it will be to interpret for them.

I’d love to hear your own summaries of different proceedings, and some pro tips of your own in the comments below. And I’ll check back in a couple months to give you the full low-down on Montreal courts. Happy interpreting!

[Also published at https://najit.org/blog on 6/9/17]

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