In an Unknown Language

It is not every day, or even every month, that courts get to quote and discuss a statute enacted in the reign of Edward III. But the BC Court of Appeal did just that in an interesting decision it issued last week, in the case of Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia, 2012 BCCA 282. The issue in the case was whether documents (prepared in the ordinary course of business) in French could be submitted as exhibits to an affidavit tendered in evidence in a civil lawsuit in British Columbia without being translated. In effect, the fight is largely about who has to pay to have the documents translated – the party submitting them, or the other side. At first instance, the judge ruled in favour of the BC government, which argued that untranslated documents in French could not be admitted.

The two main issues on the appeal were whether the British Proceedings in the Courts of Justice Act, 1731 (U.K.), 4 Geo. II, c. 26 was in force in BC and, if so, whether it prohibited the admission of documents in languages other than English.

The Court began by briefly reviewing the history of language use in English courts. As it explained,

[b]y the 13th century, and possibly earlier, oral proceedings in the King’s Court were conducted in French.  … [T]he variety of English dialects made the English language inappropriate for court proceedings.  Latin was the written language.

However, throughout the 14th century, use of the English language was on the rise, and the oral language of the courts became inaccessible to most people.  As a result, the Pleading in English Act, 1362 (U.K.), 36 Edw. III, c. 15 … was enacted (par. 19-20).

That Act, in a discussion that would fit right into modern Rule of Law literature, noted

great Mischiefs which have happened to divers of the Realm, because the Laws, Customs, and Statutes of this Realm be not commonly [holden and kept] in the same Realm, for that they be pleaded, shewed and judged in the French Tongue, which is much unknown in the said Realm; so that the People which do implead, or be impleaded, in the King’s Court, and in the Courts of other, have no Knowledge nor Understanding of that which is said for them or against them … ; and that reasonably the said Laws and Customs [the rather shall be perceived] and known, and better understood in the Tongue used in the said Realm, and by so much every Man of the said Realm may the better govern himself without offending of the Law, and the better keep, save, and defend his Heritage and Possessions; and in divers Regions and Countries, where the King, the Nobles, and other of the said Realm have been, good Governance and full Right is done to every Person, because that their Laws and Customs be learned and used in the Tongue of the Country.

It provided, accordingly, that “all Pleas which shall be pleaded in [any] Courts whatsoever … shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue,” though written records would be kept in Latin.

That situation persisted until the enactment of the the Proceedings in the Courts of Justice Act in 1731. That statute also took note of

many and great Mischiefs [which] do frequently happen to the Subjects of this Kingdom, from the Proceedings in Courts of Justice being in an unknown Language, those who are summoned and impleaded having no knowledge or understanding of what is alleged for or against them in the pleadings of their Lawyers and Attornies, who use a Character not legible to any but Persons practicing law

– and required that all written records also be kept in English rather than Latin, French, or any other language.

That statute was part of the law of England, which was received in British Columbia in 1858.

The Court of Appeal holds that it is still in force in the province. Parliament has made an exception to it insofar as criminal trials are concerned,  the accused now having the right to be tried in French. But, as regards civil procedure, it was neither repealed nor modified. The appellants’ argument that language rights must be interpreted generously is true so far as it goes, but  “the courts must not import language rights where they do not exist constitutionally or through statute, regardless of how desirable such importation may seem.” An argument of this sort is not enough to conclude that a statute has been repealed by implication.

The court further holds  that the 1731 Act applies to documentary evidence. The appellants claimed that its purpose, which is to increase access to justice, means that it should not be construed so as to prevent them from making their case. However, the court points out that though the statute’s “purpose was, generally speaking, to facilitate access to justice; more specifically … it was aimed at preventing the injustice that resulted from the conduct of litigation in a language most lay litigants could not understand” (par. 48). In a judicial understatement, Justice Bennett  observes that “[i]t is not clear to [her] how requiring a party to pay for the translation of evidence that the other party is obliged to tender would facilitate access to justice” (par. 51)

Rejecting some other arguments put forward by the appellants, the Court dismisses the appeal, and holds that the party tendering into evidence a document originally in French bears the burden of having it translated. That seems the right result to me. As Justice Bennett says, access  to justice is not served by letting people tender evidence which most citizens and most lawyers might not be able to understand. As a matter of policy, it would surely be better if a party were at least able to consent to French-language documents being admitted, but it is not for the courts to make this policy into law.

2 thoughts on “In an Unknown Language

  1. Interesting thoughts. Just how these statutes enacted many centuries ago become relevant now is just amazing. But anyway, I think the court could have come to the same conclusion using different means than relying on this Edwardian laws.

  2. Pingback: Local Circumstances | Double Aspect

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