Non-English speakers, indigenous people and those who are speech or hearing impaired are being disadvantaged in the Victorian civil justice system due to an inability to access interpreters.
According to a report released today by the Law Institute of Victoria and produced by the Interpreting Fund Scoping Project, people who have difficulties communicating in English face substantial obstacles which jeopardise their access to justice in the civil system.
"They may not be able to participate or speak on an equal basis with others, access legal services or even be aware that a legal issue has arisen," said Access to Justice Committee chairman Mark Woods.
"It's hard to win your dispute if you can't understand what is being said."
The report found that in comparison to the Commonwealth, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, Victoria is lacking the capacity to provide access to interpreters.
The report estimated that at least 30,000 Victorians may require the assistance of an interpreter for the approximately 80,000 civil disputes that arise each year.
While access to interpreters is available during all stages of the criminal justice system, it is extremely limited in the civil justice system.
According to the report's findings, one of the primary difficulties in accessing interpreters is the prevalence of unmet demand for civil interpreting services. This is where people or organisations seek but do not receive interpreting services, either because an interpreter is unavailable, or because the person in need is unable to afford or access funded interpreting services.
The report also found that unmet demand is often hidden due to the fact that not everyone who requires interpreting services will be aware of their own interpreting needs, or they will not necessarily come forward and seek such services.
The report recommended the creation of a fund to provide interpreters for those involved in Victorian civil proceedings, and urged the Victorian Government to back a pilot project examining the demand for interpreting services at Community Legal Centres, for lawyers who provide pro bono services, and those within the Magistrates Court system.