British Columbia

B.C. court interpreter delays lead to staying of drug charges

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has stayed charges against an accused drug trafficker, due to the Ministry of Justice's repeated failure to find a competent Cambodian interpreter.

Problems finding Cambodian interpreter led to wasted time, delays, mistrial and stayed charges

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson found a failure to find a competent interpreter led to 'an embarrassing collapse of ability of the courts to adjudicate' in the case of an accused drug trafficker.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has stayed charges against an accused drug trafficker because the Ministry of Justice's repeated failure to find a competent Cambodian interpreter.

Justice Douglas Thompson called Rong Kong Thim's two-year legal language odyssey "one of those clearest of cases where the integrity of the judicial system is best protected by a stay of proceedings."

The Comox Valley man was charged in September 2013 with possession of cocaine and marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, as well as unlawful production of marijuana. 

Thompson acknowledged the seriousness of the charges. But after a series of adjournments and numerous attempts to find an interpreter — one of which led to a mistrial — the judge said he was left with no choice.

"There comes a stage at which continuing the process comes at too high a cost to the reputation of the administration of justice," Thompson said in oral reasons for judgment.

"When is enough, enough? I conclude that line has been crossed."

Seven failed attempts

According to RCMP, Thim was arrested getting off a ferry in Nanaimo, B.C. Police claimed he was in possession of a kilogram of cocaine.

A search warrant at his residence allegedly turned up more cocaine and a Health Canada-licensed marijuana grow operation which was 300 plants beyond the licensed limit.

He was detained at his first bail hearing, which Thompson said he apparently did not understand had been concluded.

Thim needs a Khmer — also known as Cambodian — interpreter.

The "deeply and firmly embedded" right to have an interpreter is considered fundamental to a fair trial. Thompson noted the right is guaranteed under Sec. 14 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling details failed attempts to work with seven separate interpreters. 

One appeared by telephone instead of in person. Crown counsel indicated concerns about another.

The fourth interpreter was discharged after a voir dire established that she didn't possess a sufficient grasp of English to continue: Thompson declared a mistrial at that point, but proceedings continued.

At some point, a Court Services Branch employee sent the judge a letter saying B.C. has no accredited Cambodian interpreters: "In fact, there is no accreditation process available for the Cambodian language at present."

'An embarrassing collapse'

The branch then brought two interpreters in from Washington state, but they withdrew from the trial after learning that a legal challenge to their competency could affect their work in the U.S..

"I concluded that Court Services Branch personnel has probably not informed the Washington state interpreters that they may have to testify to their competency," Thompson said.

"I expressed to them my opinion that it was unfair to them."

Thim spent the first six months of the legal process in custody and was later released on bail. Thompson said the accused had been accommodating, but that "through no fault of his own," the matter had dragged on.

"The manner in which this case has proceeded mocks the phrase 'orderly and expeditious,'" Thompson said.

"I also find it probable that the infringements are systemic."

The judge ordered a stay, saying the failure had led to "an embarrassing collapse of the ability of the courts to adjudicate."

He also suggested representatives of B.C.'s attorney general "have not taken" their constitutional requirements seriously.


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