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English courts: Statements of truth and foreign language speakers

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English barrister Abigail Holt explains important changes in what used to be called "affidavits" and are now termed "statements of truth." The changes appear in a practice direction published 6 April 2020. Holt also looks at some of the practical problems that arise when taking statements from those for whom English is not a first or even second language.

On 6 April 2020 important changes were made to Practice Directions 22 & 32 in relations to STATEMENTS OF TRUTH which I will consider below. But I will also consider some of the practicalities of drafting witness statements on behalf of people who do not speak English as their first language.

In the UK we have (at least traditionally) had fixed ideas about language. English dominates. Welsh and other regional languages are “minority”. Our default is to presume that languages are intimately related to physical and political borders. All this probably stems from living on an island.

Of course, in many parts of the world, whole populations are intimate with two or several languages and routinely switch mid-sentence. In northern Spain, I am often involved in conversations with others who speak to me in Catalan (which I have never formally learnt), I understand and respond in Castilian Spanish, with us trying out English if we get really stuck. For those who do not know, it should be noted that there are large Catalan-speaking communities in South West France so Catalan language does not “respect” international borders, even before you get into the delicate political discussion. In Manchester where I live and work, I am surrounded by people who are completely bi-lingual in Urdu and English, Sylheti and English, who often know a bit of Arabic and the Urdu speakers tell me that they easily understand Gujarati.

Increasingly, this English language-centric world view seems artificial in the work of our Courts and Tribunals, dealing with ever-increasing numbers litigants who do not speak English as their first or even second language. Of course, the Courts and Tribunals need to work in one language. But this issue is causing massive problems during lockdown, and will, I envisage, continue post-lockdown with ongoing social distancing measures, because understanding oral evidence through interpreters is challenging enough at the best of times, exacerbated by all the ingredients that are lost when communication is attempted virtually, electronically on-line. (Who isn’t exhausted after long platform-facilitated hearings and meetings and conferences, even by phone, because you have to concentrate much harder to understand as a result of the of the delays, freezes, loss of visual cues and loss of body language indictors?)

Against this background I note that Practice Direction 22 relating to statements of truth was amended on 6 April 2020 (pursuant to the 113th amendment of Practice Directions: https://www.justice.gov.uk/cou... ).

The amendments are welcome and important, aimed at emphasising the formal nature the legal documents to which they attach, and highlighting the fundamental importance of reliable information and the need for integrity, upon which our legal system is predicated:

https://www.justice.gov.uk/cou...

The new/changed statement of truth says explicitly that the person signing understands that “proceedings for contempt of court may be brought against anyone who makes or causes to be made, a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth”. Obviously, anyone signing a statement of truth, particularly if on behalf of others, must be confident that it is accurate and the onus is on them to clarify any ambiguities before signing.

 


 

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