HL Deb 12 June 1973 vol 343 cc532-40

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I wish to make a Statement on the Welsh Language Act 1967. The effect of this Act is that in any legal proceeding in Wales or Monmouthshire either Welsh or English may be spoken by any party, witness or other person who desires to use it, subject, in the case of the use of Welsh in any court other than a magistrates' court, to such prior notice as may be prescribed, and that any necessary provision for interpretation shall be made accordingly.

About a year ago, in a speech I made to the summer meeting of the Magistrates' Association at Bangor, in North Wales, I announced that, with the agreement of my colleagues, I had invited Lord Justice Edmund Davies to spend some of his time making a personal study of the working of the Act in actual practice in the Principality and to make suggestions as to how this might be improved. This study was concluded in March and was of an informal nature not intended for publication. I have, however, asked Lord Justice Edmund Davies, to whom I should like to express my deep sense of personal indebtedness, to prepare a short summary of recommendations which I will arrange, with the permission of the House, to be circulated with the OFFICIAL REPORT. In the light of any possible difficulties, pending the publication of that Report, I will arrange for copies of the summary to be available in the Library; or, if any noble Lord wishes to apply to me, I will try to see that he gets a copy of those recommendations in advance of the OFFICIAL REPORT.

In Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, it is not at all uncommon for summary trials to be held entirely in Welsh where all concerned so desire it, and this will continue to be the case. In the predominantly English-speaking areas, where it may not always be possible to provide Welsh-speaking justices and clerks, it will still be necessary to rely on the ordinary machinery for interpretation. Nothing, of course, can take away from parties, witnesses, or other persons entitled to participate, the right to use the English language if they prefer to do so.

Lord Justice Edmund Davies's main recommendation affects proceedings in the Crown Court. This recommendation, which the Government accept, is that, where the parties so desire it and it is practicable to do so, the hearing of proceedings in Welsh should be further facilitated before the Crown Court. In order to preserve the principle of equal validity between the two languages and the equally important principle of the random selection of jurors, the only practicable way of achieving this, is, as Lord Justice Edmund Davies suggests, the provision of facilities for simultaneous translation. I am accordingly arranging for the necessary equipment to be installed in a number of selected Crown Court centres. Steps have been taken to recruit and train interpreters with the necessary skill, and experiments in the use of these facilities have been sufficiently successful to justify the installation of permanent equipment. I believe that nothing like this has been attempted in legal proceedings in the United Kingdom before, and I sincerely hope that all concerned will co-operate in making this interesting new experiment a success. When these centres are working, it will be possible for either language to be used at will without interrupting the smooth flow of proceedings.

Obviously, so far as I am concerned, it is the quality of the justice administered in our Courts which must be my first consideration. But it has always been my intention to give full effect to the principle of equal validity as enshrined in the Welsh Language Act, both in spirit and in letter, and I hope that the present decision, which is in accordance with Lord Justice Edmund Davies's recommendations, will give satisfaction to those who, consistently with the administration of justice, wish to see a greater use made of Welsh in Courts of Law. My Lords, that is my Statement.

Following is the summary of Lord Justice Davies's recommendations, referred to in the Statement:

1. Welshmen who find themselves involved in Wales in criminal proceedings should be entitled to have those proceedings conducted in the language best calculated to lead to a result which is just to all concerned.

2. The Welsh Language Act 1967 recognised that the conception of a "just result" is not confined in the linguistic sense to the simple consideration of whether the accused Welshman is able to comprehend everything said in Court. It confers upon all who speak Welsh the right to use it without let or hindrance in legal proceedings, however complete their facility in English. But it confers upon no-one the right to dictate to other people the language those others are to use in Court; and, indeed, any statutory provision which conferred dictatorial powers of this kind would itself constitute an abnegation of the very right which fervent supporters of Welsh regard as basic to their own cause.

3. I understand the aspiration of people who would have criminal trials in Wales involving Welshmen conducted in Welsh, with the minimum of translation into and from English, and I support the attitude of those who say that what is needed is for the emphasis to be laid on the possibility of a purely Welsh trial (where that is asked for by the accused), rather than on its impracticability.

4.But I must forthwith enter a caveat. Though the "equal validity "principle was adopted by the Hughes-Parry Committee" so that justice would be seen to be done to the Welsh speaker", no-one must ever be entitled to say that Welsh justice is second-rate justice.

Whatever be the language (or languages) employed in the Courts in Wales, justice must be both seen and heard to be done. To that consideration all other factors are subordinate, and their cogency must depend on whether they am be reconciled with it. It is upon that basic premise that I approached my task.

5. Jury Trials. My enquiries confirmed my initial impression that trial by jury would probably prove to be the touchstone of the practicability of conducting in untranslated Welsh the sort of trials which have hitherto sparked off trouble in Wales. I therefore devoted a substantial part of the report to considering it. The Lord Chancellor has been criticised for intimating to Plaid Cymru that "it would be unsafe for a Judge to take the risk that all the jurymen did not need translation from Welsh unless our law and procedure for the selection and challenge of jurymen were radically altered". For my part, I have been principally concerned to enquire whether useful alterations in our law and procedure to that end are or could become available. The conclusion I have been forced to is (a) that no satisfactory means has been suggested and (b) that it would be of doubtful constitutional propriety to resort to it even if it had been.

As to (a), while various suggestions were advanced for amending the law and practice so as to ensure the empanelling of a jury every member of which is capable of following a trial conducted in untranslated Welsh, I am wholly unconvinced that this result is attainable in any of the ways suggested. Indeed, not the least disturbing feature is the strong conflict between various supporters as to the best means of achieving this end. An illustration of the inherent difficulty is afforded by a trial conducted last year before a jury, each member of which expressed preference for taking the oath in Welsh. During the hearing, the Welsh evidence was translated into English. It was later learnt that, while all the jurors said that they understood Welsh, eight of their number considered that such translation had been necessary, four that it had not. One juror who had even passed the School Certificate with oral proficiency in Welsh said that his understanding of the evidence given in Welsh was improved by its translation into English, as those participating had spoken Welsh of such a high standard.

As to (b), while jury service is often regarded merely as a duty, it is in fact one of the important privileges of citizenship. To take steps to ensure that 75 per cent. of the population of the Principality should be debarred from jury service in a particular case on the sole ground that they cannot understand Welsh would involve a radical departure from that random formation of the jury panel which Blackstone described as a "palladium" of our liberties.

I have therefore arrived at the firm conclusion that a jury capable of comprehending every part of a trial conducted throughout solely in Welsh is doubtful of being ensured and, further, that it ought not to be aimed at. It may happen that under the existing procedure a Welsh accused finds himself being tried by such a jury. But as this is unpredictable, I recommend that there should be made available to every juror in a Welsh trial an individual simultaneous translation apparatus, the Judge taking pains to explain to all that it is there for them to switch on (and off) if and when they find it necessary.

6. Judges. The supply of Judges and Recorders who speak and understand Welsh is, and is likely to be, equal to the demand in both criminal and civil proceedings. Undoubtedly, the capacity of some of their number to preside over Welsh trials can and should be improved by attendance at the special courses recently arranged by the University College of Aberystwyth. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to ensure that every Judge called upon to preside over Welsh trials understands and speaks Welsh. A simultaneous translation apparatus should therefore be available to them, as to the jurors and all others participating in the trial.

7. Prosecutions. All other things being equal I recommend that prosecuting authorities be encouraged to present their cases in Welsh, where this course is sought by the accused. But this may not be reasonably practicable in cases of a specialised or complicated character (e.g. Inland Revenue prosecutions), and these should be conducted in a place where simultaneous translation instruments have been installed.

8. "Guilty" pleas and appeals. In the past these have frequently been conducted in Welsh throughout, and in such cases translation into English will seemingly continue to be unnecessary.

9. Public and Press. Some strongly deny that members of the public and Press present at a trial who do not understand Welsh have any right to be kept informed by translation of what is being said in that language. But, whatever criticism has been levelled against Welsh trials even in the recent past, the methods of simultaneous translation now available have transformed the situation, and suitable apparatus should be made available to both public and Press. It is to be noted that the Welsh Language Society favour the provision of such equipment to members of the public, and said in their 1972 Manifesto, "We cannot for one moment accept that their convenience is an obstacle to the right of a Welsh-speaker to be tried in his own language".

10. Magistrates. There appears to be no reason why some summary trials in the Magistrates' Courts should not continue to be held entirely in Welsh and without translation, provided proper steps are taken to secure the presence of a Bench and a Clerk who understand the language and are fully capable of following the proceedings.

11. Staffing. The staffing of Courts with Clerks competent in Welsh presents greater problems than the assembling of a Bench of Welsh Magistrates, and this matter deserves immediate attention.

12. Interpretation. The importance of this topic cannot be exaggerated, for even the most fervent supporters of all-Welsh trials recognise that in most cases a measure of interpretation is unavoidable. The necessity for high standards of efficiency is increased by the installation of the simultaneous translation apparatus which I regard as essential if Welsh trials are to be held in the higher Courts. Special training is necessary and encouraging results are reported from experimental courses for Court interpreters conducted at Aberystwyth. Appointments to such posts should be made financially attractive, for the work calls for a high degree of skill.

13. Civil proceedings. There appear to be sufficient Welsh-speaking Circuit Judges to deal with such civil work as is likely to be disposed of in Welsh. While I favour a wholly flexible approach to the question of the primary language of the trial, I recommend acceptance of the following guide-lines:

  1. (a) Every party and witness must be free to give evidence in whichever language he chooses.
  2. (b) In some cases and places the primary language of the trial ought, as a matter of fairness and convenience, to be Welsh, while in other cases and places it ought to be in English.
  3. (c) Considerations of time and expense cannot be ignored in determining the primary language of trial.
  4. (d) The primary language of the trial should be determined beforehand, so that any necessary arrangements can be made in good time.
  5. (e) In order to allow for the possibility of an appeal, pleadings and all other Court documents should continue to be in English.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his Statement. It seems to me to be an excellent one, embodying as it does an innovation which will remove one of the dissatisfactions felt by Welsh-speaking Welshmen about the administration of justice in Wales. In addition, on the practical side this will shorten Crown Court proceedings as against the time taken by translations made in the usual way in some of the courts in Wales. This decision I am sure will be widely welcomed by the people of the Principality. I happily join with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his expression of thanks to Lord Justice Edmund Davies for the consideration that he gave to this matter, and I certainly thank the Lord Chancellor for taking the necessary steps to have the information circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT—when we have an OFFICIAL REPORT—and giving us the advantage in the meantime of seeing this Report and recommendations in the Library.

The decision to start in selected Crown Court centres leads me to ask: Is it too early to give the House some indication of where these centres will be? Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has already made up his mind on this point, or is in process of making up his mind. May I further ask this? If this proves a success in the Crown Courts, will consideration be given to something similar in magistrates' courts where the practice in simultaneous translation has not obtained—indeed we have lengthy proceedings there, certainly in some of our courts. In order to "jump the gun", possibly, on the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, I will thank the noble and learned Lord in one of my very few Welsh phrases, Diolch yr fawr.


My Lords, I rise merely to express our thanks to Lord Justice Edmund Davies for the way he has tackled this matter, and to say that I think it is an eminently sensible and modern solution.


My Lords, may I just thank both noble Lords for the way this Statement has been received. I am thinking at the moment of Mold, Carmarthen and Cardiff. There was an experimental trial on May 16 at Cardiff, and I am told that from many points of view it was a complete success; at any rate, it was an encouraging trial. It was a genuine trial and the judge, who is bilingual, summed up in Welsh and the simultaneous translation was in English. There are considerable difficulties about this method. What does the Court of Appeal do, for instance, if the two translations do not coincide? It is not as easy as it sounds. At any rate a certain amount of good will come of it and I hope we shall manage to get along. I take the point that was raised by the noble Lord with regard to magistrates' courts, but, strictly speaking, they are not my responsibility; they are the responsibility of the Home Secretary. But there is not quite the same need in magistrates' courts because in Welsh-speaking areas at the moment there are many trials purely in Welsh, if people so desire it (as I said in the Statement), with a translation for anyone who has not enough Welsh to follow the proceedings. Of course I will take it into account and will report it to my right honourable friend.

It is no small matter to introduce all this. Special interpreters have to be trained with the facility of simultaneous translation and it is no ordinary linguist who can do this. It requires not only a good knowledge of the language but facility and speed in translation. It is no use just being good at the other language: you have to translate legal terms straight into actual legal terms in the other language. A mere facility of speech will not do. I think we must see how we get along, and then if people have various improvements to suggest we will attempt to improve on our performance.


My Lords, may I add my thanks to my noble friend and my warmest congratulations, llongyfarchiadali cynhesaf.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, whether the people who act as interpreters are remunerated for their labours?


Yes, my Lords. They are paid a retaining fee and so much a day for their work.


My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord bear in mind the experiences in the Republic of Ireland in this connection? And shall we soon be having courts in Urdu in Leicester?


My Lords, the law is that in the Principality the two languages of English and Welsh are of equal validity. My object is to administer the law and to carry it out myself, so far as in me lies. It is a fundamental human right, which has nothing whatever to do with the Welsh language, that if anybody does not sufficiently understand the proceedings in which he is engaged in any English court of law it is our business to find an interpreter, if we can, because it is a fundamental rule of natural justice that people should not have proceedings affecting them going on which they do not understand. Of course there will be all kinds of translations, not only in Leicester but in every town in England where they are required. I must add that there always have been.