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Pattaya Daily News

12 December 2009 :: 20:12:44 pm 1156

Exclusive: Inside the Mind of a Legal Interpreter

Often people wonder how Thai court cases are decided, time and again we see minor or none existent charges going to court, where there is often a decidedly negative outcome. As you may be aware PDN have assisted in a variety of cases over the years, with an outstanding success record to date.
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None of these positive outcomes could have been achieved without the aid of PDN’s professional translator, who has worked closely with the same honest and reputable Thai lawyer for many years. The negative press that appears in the media in regards to the Thai judicial system is largely warranted; however it is PDN’s experience that with the aid of a good legal team and a strong argument, the chances of success are no better or worse than in any other country in the world. But it is clear that once involved in the judicial proceedings of a foreign country, aquiring the means to communicate accurately and clearly must be the highest priority. As in any other culture, Thai magistrates do not consider ignorance an excuse.

The following is a brief interview conducted with PDN’s translator, where we discover what it is like to work in the midst of the Thai judicial system, attempting to achieve a successful outcome, at times against extreme prejudice and corruption.

Do you ever get frustrated or disappointed when you’re assisting foreigners with their legal battles?

Yes! Many times – actually, all the cases. Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be the victim of a crime, or be accused of committing a crime? You don’t speak Thai, you don’t understand the legal system, and you’re trying to communicate as best you can with lawyers and police. Sounds like a nightmare. Once you have hired a lawyer, you seem to expect your lawyer or your interpreter to answer your phone, spare time for you 24 hrs, so this is what I call a “Nightmare” for me.

The reasons I get frustrated are:

1. The foreigner [involved in the case] hasn’t studied Thai law and even, in some cases, shows complete ignorance of the law in their own country. So they don’t know the procedures. They expect everything to be done quickly. They’re not aware that Pattaya is the busiest court in Thailand handling a large variety of foreign nationals. I also have to make sure that I don’t translate or explain to them incorrectly. For example, there were three different interpretations of the same thing; like when you say “I dont care” it has a much more aggressive meaning in Thai.

2. Our lawyer doesn’t speak any English at all, so most of the time they have to rely on the skill of the interpreter – which is me! Also, contrary to the generally accepted image, our lawyer is a relaxed character, who smiles a lot and is always polite. He is one of the best lawyers I have ever worked with. Sometimes his explanations to me, particularly on points of law, are not enough to convey the full meaning to our clients so I have had to learn to trust him – and so far so good.

3. The foreign clients fail to respect the rules of the court. On so many occasions I’ve had to tell them not to their cross legs, not to laugh or smile when they’re supposed to be sad, not to ask sarcastic questions, not to speak out of turn, not to try and educate the lawyer or the judge and, most importantly, not to act like some big shot farang.

Why don’t you work with an English speaking lawyer?

Because then they don’t need me. There are good and bad lawyers everywhere in the world. Many of those lawyers operating in Thailand who are fluent in English call themselves professional but have no idea of how the courts work. In Pattaya, there are many foreign victims who have heard about all the bad things that can happen to innocent people.

So if they are involved in a case and they have money, they just go straight to the so called “professionals” and they don’t mind paying a fortune, even if they don’t win the case.

The professional lawyer will manage to come up with a nice apology and sometimes persuade the client to continue the case at a higher level even though they know they will lose anyway.

I’m not saying there are no good lawyers in Pattaya. They do exist. The same goes for the court judges in Pattaya and Chonburi but it’s unfortunate we can’t publish the names of those who have shown genuine professionalism and integrity.

So you prefer to work with good lawyers who are smart, honest and dedicated to their work but don’t speak English, why?

Because at least then it’s easier for me to see if he’s greedy, over charges or unnecessarily prolongs the case just to make more money. He has to work with me as a team and he knows that I can never support such malpractices because my intention is to prove to foreigners that our Thai justice system is not that bad. There isn’t corruption everywhere all the time as is the general opinion. I think often the problem is all to do with poor communication.

Is your prime motive as an interpreter to make money?

No, not intentionally, just coincidently through my routine job as the owner and Editor of PDN. I try to improve on my work each day. I’d had enough of reporting the same things over and over again every year. All of our news comes from the same group of Thai reporters and we are all friends [except ones that they might not like us much because we upload news late and they cannot copy on time!]

I, myself have been cheated in a few cases and received unfair and bad treatment from the police and government officers just like every decent Thai who tries to survive in this town. I have been teaching English to Thais and vice versa. I have also become aware of the corruption and monopoly systems in this town, not to mention Thailand as a whole.

For example, I see poor people who rely on the tourist industry for their survival suffering each day. The rich and the powerful don’t seem to care. They just want to make as much money as fast as they can, including foreign investors.

The difference between locals and the visitors is that the visitors can leave anytime they choose, just as many are doing now, fed up with our political unrest, perceived high crime rate, corruption, global economics, gangsters, mafia, and whatever other problems there are. The investors are marching out of Thailand or Pattaya, that’s what we’re hearing now but I can see it from another point of view and I’m sure one day things will get better for Pattaya IF the officials spare more time to fix the really serious problems rather than spending so many resources on trying to promote the city like they are doing now.

I have changed my attitude a lot since helping people in the court. I am proud to say that we do have generous and fair judges. In the recent case with Barry, the female judge presiding was so straight and independent. She gave him a lot of opportunity to talk and even act out the events in his case even though most of it was irrelevant. I think she allowed it because she seemed to know that he was angry and disappointed. She calmly and patiently listened to him and I had to tell her I had to translate every word and act like him as well. She tried to hold her smile and said “okay, no need, I understand, tell him that the story he just told has nothing to do with the case so it won’t go on record.”

For me it has often been just like the “chicken and the egg.” Sometimes I don’t know what I should do first. My priorities are changing every day. Sometimes I have to drop my routine job and rush to interview a subject more interesting to me even though it won’t be published, but that’s just my nature.

These cases all involve a lot of running around but I also have to pay my bills too! Our income comes from our sponsors who have been growing in number each year. My lawyer normally charges a very reasonable fee by Thai standards. Barry nearly paid a lawyer in Bangkok 2 million baht after paying his first lawyer 200,000 baht up front, none of which was returned to him. We charged him only 100,000 baht. So it’s not about money, you know. Though I can’t say it’s for fun, either. These cases can involve a lot of homework and searching for and researching information. This incurs cost, both in time and effort, and at times we put ourselves at risk, so I suppose it’s only fair we should receive some funds for what we do.

The case of Barry And The Plastic KnifeHow did you meet Barry?He sent me an Email and his long story What did you think about his first Email?
I didn’t like it. Actually I forwarded it to one of my editors to correspond with him. He suggested in his email that he would be doing us a favour by letting us publish his story. Things may work that way in his home country, but not here. He even said in the mail that “we will let you publish my story for free, we won’t charge you for it!”

So why you decided to take his case?
It was interesting and I had a feeling Barry had something to hide and wasn’t telling me the whole truth.

After I looked at the documents and listened to the whole story and observed his acting showing me how it all happened, we then decided to have a meeting with my lawyer, who lives in Bangkok, on the next day in my office.

The lawyer read through the entire document and said immediately “easy case, take it!”

I couldn’t really tell Barry exactly what the lawyer said because he would shake his head and ask too many questions. I know I would run out of patience if I had to carefully explain to him. I just told Barry and his wife that we have never lost a case so far, not because we are that good or we have connections but because we only choose cases which we have more than an 80% chance of winning. In his case, he had been wrongly charged, which we cannot criticize here as it was due to his first lawyer. So Barry sent me all the emails of correspondence with his lawyer and I could see that there were some communication errors which had made Barry so frustrated.

What were the specific difficulties with this case?

1.Barry didn’t believe or trust us 100%. He expected us to report to him everyday what we were doing in his case, which is impossible. We had studied his case, and the main point was that we saw that we could win.

2. The original translation by his wife was good but we knew that the truth about what happened may be not useful in court. It was also difficult for me to tell him the judge would not take into account his background.

3. The strange thing was that Barry re-shaped the knife. He made it look different from the original pictures taken by his first lawyer. Even now, I don’t understand why he did this, but my lawyer said it didn’t matter. All we had to do was prove it wasn’t a case of attempted murder.

4. Most of the time they were expecting me to act like a machine, translating Thai into English word for word, both accurately and quickly without any breaks or problems “that’s just not the way it works.” I know if I get it wrong the consequences could be enormous on Barry’s life, this is why I had to handle every question and response with great delicacy. If such care is not taken in every case an innocently accused person might be found guilty, or a criminal might escape conviction. For example; Barry was asked a question by the prosecutor, which I interpreted for him. In a roundabout way he began to answer; however his answer was not directly in response to the question. I proceeded to whisper to him, “That’s not what they asked you,” before I interpreted only the relevant details back to the prosecution. Although it was the wrong thing to do, I was confident of Barry’s innocence and that he was aware that I was trying to present his case in the clearest possible way.

I chose not to publish his two part articles on PDN into Thai because it may affect his case. However, working with Barry was interesting. We turned out to be friends, especially with his wife Bee. I will join her for her next meditation. I would also like to thank Allan, Barry’s friend, who turned up to be his witness and also Bee – she did a pretty good job describing her husband’s character which almost made us burst out laughing in the court! And our goddess, the judge, my favourite judge, I owe her a bunch of flowers.

The most important thing that I must mention here is thank you both, Barry and Bee, for sticking with us till the end to prove that Thai justice is not that bad. You were good fighters and chose to do the right thing. I know of so many cases where the Thai wives have told their Farang husbands to give up and pay money under the table to drop the case.

Barry has now been found innocent and is free, but he has a record of assault and was fined 3750 baht. The judge did ask me to tell him : “Next time, don’t try to solve the problem yourself. You must inform the police.”

Allan’s case

How did you meet him?
By email.

Why did you decide to help him?
He had all the documents to back up his case. Each time I interviewed him, he never changed his story.

His lawyer could not communicate with him and also he [the lawyer] admitted that he was afraid of Mr. H [Allan’s defendant]

What were the specific difficulties with this case?

1. It involved government officials and powerful people within the Pattaya community. I’m sure that there are many brave interpreters here in Thailand, who are aware of the dangerous positions that we put ourselves in at times. In some cases these positions could be life-threatening, when the other members of the community around us don’t in fact understand what our role is.

2. After I started to get involved, I had to run around alone – I put “alone” here delibrately – in Pattaya to find more information while Allan did likewise in Bangkok. Okay, by doing that he did help quite a lot, but also it was quite risky to spread his plan around, which made me get even more frustrated.

3. He had 8 months to arrange a new lawyer but he didn’t contact me except to keep posting comments on the similar cases we were reporting in PDN, intending to inform the readers that he was facing big corrupted officials or mafia in the court case in Pattaya. The more he posted the more he put people off because it became tedious and nobody really cared to help anymore. This also included the likes of the DSI, the ministry of transportation, the previous Chonburi governor, etc. Everyone was busy and his case was never the first thing on their priorities anyway.

So what’s the situation now?

On the 3rd December, his previous lawyer had dropped the case and we found out that the case was actually out of date. I knew he was working in collusion with someone else, whose name I can’t mention here. But the judge was very understanding and wondered why the lawyer would do that. He said it wasn’t fair, so the judge let the case be postponed until May 2010. Allan now has a Thai lawyer friend who has volunteered to help him.

After the court, during our lunch, I talked to his new lawyer and we both knew his chances of winning were very slim. So I decided to take Allan to the Pattaya City Mayor’s office that afternoon.

This time, I called my reporter friends from all the national newspapers in Bangkok telling them that Allan would be holding a press conference about his court case related to the boat accident and the loss of his brother. Also, we had coincidentally reported about another boat accident 2 days before.

That afternoon, in Khun Ronnakit Ekasingse, the deputy mayor’s office, we printed out Allan’s stories both in Thai and English and took a video tape of his interview. I had noticed that none of those officers were interested in reading the one in English which was quite strongly worded. They had a quick look at the Thai version which contained some photos of the involved people.

We had to explain through many officials [ his secretaries, many involved deputy mayors including Mr. Sanit Boonmachai] and finally Khun Ittipon sat down casually to listen to us. Allan’s story had actually never been sent to the Mayor. Khun Ittiphol asked me, ”I have never heard this before, who is Mr. H, what does H stand for?

I was really impressed to see his eyes gently looking at Allan and asked him some warm questions as to what he could do to help. I told him that 400,000 baht is nothing for Mr. H, but if he feels it’s too much, somehow the city or an organization must share the responsibilities.

Khun Ittipon promised us that within one week he would get back to us!
And I loved when he told us, “No one can be above the law!!
We left the city hall with hope.

Photo : PDN staff   Category : Editorial

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