Charlie Swinbourne: Why it is wrong for an Irish Deaf man to be denied an interpreter in court

Posted on May 31, 2016

This is a story that might give you mixed feelings. It certainly gave me mixed feelings at first.

The story was sent to me by Sarah Jane O’Regan (who some of you may know for being a TV presenter for Ireland’s Hands On programme), and it goes like this:

According to this article in the Donegal Daily, John McGrotty, a Deaf man who is 65, was banned from County Donegal two weeks ago after being accused of harassing a doctor and his family, subjecting them to what the article describes as “a five year reign of terror.”

The article goes on:

As well as standing in his front lawn naked, McGrotty is accused of throwing rusty nails onto the McEniff’s driveway, using a hose to spray their cars with water, using obscene finger gestures to the couple’s children and shouting obscenities at them.

There’s a lot more detail in the article, and it also says that on two occasions, McGrotty has admitted harassing and stalking the family.

After “McGrotty swore he had stopped the harassment and that all he wanted was a peaceful and calm life,” in an earlier court appearance, he was brought before the court on Wednesday 18th May after being accused of again harassing the family.

Now, from the detail in the article, if true, it’s hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for this man.

But this is where things become a bit worrying, from a justice point of view. As the article says:

Judge Kelly was told that a sign language interpreter could not be made available for yesterday’s (WED) court sitting and McGrotty’s solicitor Patsy Gallagher said he needed an interpreter for his client to give evidence.

Judge Kelly said he had made a decision to order McGrotty to live outside of Donegal with his daughter in Glasnevin in Dublin.

He asked that a letter be written by the court service instructing McGrotty of his decision.

“I will remand him on bail for sentencing. I want it made clear to him that he is to leave Donegal and not to come back under any circumstances apart from a meeting with the mental health services. If he is Donegal he will be lifted and remanded in custody,” he said.

He adjourned the case until June 14th.

And he warned that if McGrotty does go anywhere near Dungloe –  “Gardai bring him back to me if he does.”

No matter what he is supposed to have done, it’s deeply troubling that a court hearing could take place, and a decision made about a Deaf man’s culpability for something, without him having access to proceedings at all.

No interpreter meant he could not give evidence, and when the judge told him he was not allowed in his own home country, he wasn’t able to understand this either.

The problem with it as well, is that is sets a precedent. If one court case can go by without a defendant having access to proceedings, then others could too.

It’s this that prompted Sarah Jane O’Regan to get in touch. She said:

What’s alarming is that the Justice system allowed for a Deaf citizen’s human rights to be denied.

Allow me to put it in context, would you allow a room full of people to discuss your actions as you stood outside the room and the Judge held the door closed, denying you access?

I couldn’t stand back and do nothing so I arranged a petition to gather support from the Deaf community. To date, we have gathered 1,100 signatures to object to the decisions made by Judge Paul Kelly and demand that he recognizes the Deaf defendant’s human rights.

Sarah Jane has started a petition, which can be seen here:

The petition has already had over 1000 signatures and here are several of the responses:

Sylvia Nolan: ‘I cannot beleive how ignorant the judge was in this case. To allow the case to go ahead without any interpeters at all in the hearing. Where is the equality?? And where is the justice to a fair hearing ??’

Bernadette Ferguson: If an Irish person were abroad on charges, had no interpretation during a trial/hearing and therefore no knowledge of what was being said, it would be headline news! Shame on the legal people who stood by and let this happen. Shame!

Laura Donnellan: Deaf people should have equal access to information as their hearing contemporaries. This means ISL recognition and equal status.

It’d be easy for many of us reading the details of this case to feel little sympathy for this man, because of what he is said (and has admitted on two occasions) to have done. That’s certainly how I felt at first.

The flip side is that things have happened in that courtroom that seem clearly wrong, from a justice point of view, and this should be highlighted. If you agree, I suggest you sign the petition.

Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He is currently making two new episodes of his documentary,  Found, about Deaf identity. He previously wrote and directed the comedies The Kissand Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool along with other film and TV credits. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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