25 Sep 2023 3:39 AM GMT
On a seemingly ordinary morning on September 22 (Friday), the Supreme Court of India had a surprise in store for all those tuned into its virtual proceedings. A small window popped up on the screen, displaying a man intently interpreting court proceedings in sign language. The presence of the Indian Sign Language (ISL) interpreter, Saurav Roychowdhury, was arranged by Advocate on Record...
On a seemingly ordinary morning on September 22 (Friday), the Supreme Court of India had a surprise in store for all those tuned into its virtual proceedings. A small window popped up on the screen, displaying a man intently interpreting court proceedings in sign language. The presence of the Indian Sign Language (ISL) interpreter, Saurav Roychowdhury, was arranged by Advocate on Record Sanchita Ain, who had a sole mission in mind - to ensure that her deaf junior, Advocate Sarah Sunny, could actively participate in the court's deliberations.
Ain faced initial resistance from the moderator for the virtual courtroom who told her that the interpreter could not be allowed to keep his video turned on for the entire duration of the court proceedings. However, CJI DY Chandrachud, presiding over the proceedings was more than willing to grant the permission for the interpreter to keep his video turned on, stating, "Of course, the interpreter can join the proceedings. No problem."
Saurav's unanticipated appearance did not go unnoticed. It sparked curiosity and admiration among the attendees, including Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who couldn't help but applaud the interpreter's speed, remarking, "the speed at which the interpreter is interpreting in sign language is amazing."
Advocate Sarah Sunny, India's first practicing deaf advocate, spoke to Live Law about her unique experience of having an ISL interpreter translate the proceedings for her. Sarah didn't hold back her praise, especially for Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, who has been a vocal advocate for equal access to justice for persons with disabilities. She told Live Law–
“The open mind(edness) of the CJI has set an example and opened doors for specially-abled persons...Though this time I was not there for the argument of the case, Advocate Sanchita wanted to open doors for me to get an experience of the Supreme Court and to prove that a specially-abled person is not behind.”
It is worth noting that CJI Chandrachud's dedication to ensuring equal access to justice isn't new. Just last year, he called for a comprehensive Accessibility audit of the Supreme Court premises. The goal was clear - to make the justice system more accessible and to understand the challenges faced by specially-abled individuals in their interactions with the Supreme Court of India. Even during open court sessions, CJI Chandrachud has consistently voiced his mission to transform courts across the country into welcoming spaces for lawyers and litigants with disabilities. In that context, the presence of an ISL interpreter in the Supreme Court marked a significant stride toward fulfilling this vision.
In order to get the full picture, Live Law also spoke with Advocate Sanchita Ain, the driving force behind having an ISL interpreter in the courtroom. In a candid conversation, she shared that the ISL interpreter's appearance coincided with the International Sign Language Week. At the same time, she asserted that the importance of this moment was juxtaposed with the challenges that remain on the path to genuine inclusivity and accessibility within the Indian legal system. She emphasized that for real institutional change to take place, it was imperative for the administration to take an active role in advancing sign language accessibility. In her view, involving the administration was the linchpin to bring about the much-needed transformation within the legal system and ensure equal access to justice for all.
Highlighting crucial issues faced by specially-abled persons in accessing courts, she stated that perhaps the biggest roadblock for freshers and junior lawyers was the financial and logistical challenges of securing interpreters. She stated that interpreters often charged by the hour and had to take a break after a 30-minute session. Thus, for a deaf lawyer to understand a case which lasted for even an hour, they would have to employ two interpreters who would each charge on an hourly basis. Ain stressed that the courts had to step up and provide interpreters as part of reasonable accommodation, ensuring that deaf lawyers and litigants could access justice without breaking the bank. She said–
"Persons with disabilities have a right to reasonable accommodation under the law, and providing a sign language interpreter is merely one such accommodation. We create a communication barrier for them by not providing them with an interpreter. Imagine if a deaf lawyer cannot have an interpreter how do we ensure access to justice for deaf litigants?"
While acknowledging the logistical challenges of having an interpreter present in the courtroom full-time, Advocate Sanchita emphasized that in the era of digitisation, where hybrid proceedings had become common, it was entirely feasible for the administration to have an interpreter appear virtually, especially for individuals who required this service. Ain noted, "Individuals cannot be expected to have the resources, institutions have them."
In her conversation with Live Law, Ain also underlined that there existed a gap in the linguistic arsenal caused due to the absence of a comprehensive sign language dictionary for legal terminology. To illustrate the issue, Ain gave the example of trying to translate a term like 'habeas corpus' into sign language in real-time during court proceedings. She stated that the interpreter in such a case would spell each letter of the word out. This lack of a standardized sign language dictionary for legal terms, as per Ain, created a considerable barrier to effective communication. Ain expressed her intention to eventually create such a glossary to aid deaf lawyers and ISL interpreters.
She also highlighted the difficulties in levelling the playing field between those who required reasonable accommodation and those who don't. She said that the pervasive challenges faced by deaf individuals across various stages of their education and career were not confined to a single arena; they spanned across different facets of life– be it writing competitive exams like CLAT, being compelled to enroll in open universities due to more flexibility and eventually facing disadvantage compared to students from conventional institutions, securing internships as many workplaces may not be adequately equipped to support their communication needs, and so on.
Ain says that she will be doing the same in Meghalaya High Court and trial court as well as those courts have a hybrid mode and Saurav, the same ISL Interpreter, would join virtually for Sarah. She adds–
"I always say there is nothing called less inclusive or more inclusive. Either it is inclusive or it is not, and right now our system is not inclusive. Perhaps that’s why we were celebrating someone being ‘allowed’ to have an interpreter, because we do not even realise that it is as basic as having a pen: a pen that is too costly to afford."
As her conversation with Live Law comes to an end, she says–
"No doubt it is a great gesture. But we do need court-appointed interpreters and we will continue to ask for it."
Also Read - LiveLaw's interview of Sarah Sunny which was published in March 2022.