Last month I experienced my first trial under Covid-19 restrictions. I was in the fortunate position of having been booked “out of an abundance of caution”, as the defence barrister put it, to make sure that the defendant understood everything but his English comprehension was very good. Therefore, I found myself observing the courtroom changes and wondering how well I would be able to work if I had to interpret every stage and in full.
The social distancing meant that the courthouse was at 20% capacity. Few courtrooms seemed to be in use so the trials being held were in courts that were well-spaced out from another. For example, I was working in Court 10 but Court 9 next to it was not being used. That provided the advantage of not being overheard by parties to another case. The emptiness of the seating area meant that you could read quietly or eat your packed lunch in peace.
In the courtroom itself, there were perspex screens between everyone. Masks had to be worn unless you were speaking. The judge had a microphone behind his screen on his bench so he was very easy to hear in the dock but unfortunately so was his keyboard! While I was glad that he could type people’s evidence so quickly it was a pity that he didn’t swing the microphone away from his laptop while he was writing.
The jury had individual screens on three sides of them, making each one look like they were in a kiosk. Thank goodness that they didn’t speak! I felt sorry for them because getting to and leaving their seats was a very cumbersome process.
The barristers had screens around them on three sides but they didn’t have microphones and their backs were to me, as usual. In the dock I could hear them but softly. When I needed to interpret their words my voice masked their comments. I had to work consecutively and was glad that I had my trusty notepad with me! Simultaneous interpreting was not an option.
The dock was modified so that there were screens between all the seats and the defendant and I were expected to wear masks. Therefore, when I needed to interpret something it had to be done consecutively. Often, I preferred to lean back and speak to the defendant without the screen so that he could hear me properly.
The witness stand had a perspex screen around on three sides so the witnesses and defendant could give their evidence without a mask. The judge requested that they remove their masks so that everyone could clearly see their faces while they were communicating. I thoroughly approved of this. There was no screen for the interpreter, just a chair for me to place one metre away from the witness stand. I took off my mask too in case I needed to interpret. In the end, the defendant didn’t understand two key points in the cross-examination so I interpreted the prosecutor’s questions for him. I was glad that I was there.
In conclusion, it was most helpful to be in the courtroom essentially as an observer. Now I know what to be expect for the next trial. I anticipate that it will be quite demanding.