Australian court interpreters working with domestic violence survivors call for more support

Liana Papoutsis trains court staff in how to deal with survivors and respondents in family violence cases. Source: Supplied

Interpreters offering translation services to those affected by domestic and family violence are speaking up about the impact of their work - but say more bilingual people should be supported to join the industry.

Melbourne woman Liana Papoutsis has been working as an interpreter in the legal sector for 16 years. 

It can be a lonely job.

“Interpreters are in high demand and there are shortages in many languages,” she told SBS News. 

It can also lead to deeper issues for some without support. 

"Vicarious trauma is insidious as it accumulates over time," she said.  

Liana Papoutsis
Liana Papoutsis works as a court interpreter.

Ms Papoutsis, 49, speaks Greek and English and has trained court staff in how to deal with family violence survivors.

"We touched on many issues including collusion, active listening, and using the right language," she said. 

She is also a family violence survivor herself. 

"Interpreters have been traumatised by family violence details, and especially when these often include sexual violence as well, which is often in a family violence setting," she said. 

"Many interpreters will avoid family violence matters, whether it is for a family violence intervention order, or breaches, which move the matter from the civil to the criminal." 

She has been calling for a thorough briefing system handled by professionals who can discuss cases with them.

Liana Papoutsis is training court staff
Liana Papoutsis trains court staff in how to deal with survivors and respondents in family violence cases.

"Often the debrief is not required straight away after the interpreting assignment, it could be days, weeks or months afterwards," she said.

"There needs to be a proper mechanism in place."

"Perhaps interpreting agencies can partner with someone like [support service] 1800Respect to offer debrief sessions or chats with interpreters." 

Calls for more interpreters

Despite the impacts the work can have on interpreters, those in the industry are calling for more people to sign up. 

Former interpreter Shashi Kochar who speaks Hindi, Punjabi and understands Urdu, spent a couple of years working as an interpreter and was motivated to help the community as an unpaid volunteer. 

He said when he was doing interpreting work a decade ago, the vicarious trauma those in the industry experienced on the job wasn't considered and the reporting of family violence has become more prevalent in the years since. 

“It all started around 1995 or onwards where it got more and more and more and more,” he said. 

Shashi Kochar is a former interpreter
Shashi Kochar says many cases are hard to forget.
Supplied: Monash Leader

He said the memories of cases can remain with an interpreter for a long time.

"Of course you get upset that, 'why these things are happening to other fellow human beings?' And that disturbs a lot," he said.

But, he said, more people need support to be able to join the industry to relieve the pressure on others. 

Police could be using interpreter services even more, he said, if police and courts engaged bilingual people in the community.

"We have got the resources at our doorstep and we are not using those," he said. 

"Like me, there are quite a few people who are speaking different languages and they can do it, like Sri Lankan, Burmese and Punjabi also."

Court interpreters need a qualification from the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters.

Importance of interpretation 

Lawyers in Queensland and Victoria have previously raised concerns about how an under usage of interpreters can put survivors who don't speak English at risk of themselves being criminalised. 

A Victorian report published into family violence intervention order matters between January and May last year found 60 per cent of women were misidentified as the perpetrators of violence.

The Women’s Legal Service Victoria reviewed Melbourne Magistrates Court cases and suggested the results can be linked to police failing to arrange an interpreter.

The service said women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were over-represented in the group of wrongly-named aggressors.

Ria Jago is a senior policy adviser
Ria Jago is from Women's Legal Service Victoria.
Supplied: Ria Jago

"Recently we had a case where the police didn't call an interpreter,” the service’s Ria Jago said.

“The person who was using violence got in first - that's a tactic that they often like to use - and so when police got there, he actually had better English than she did,” Ms Jago said.

The male perpetrator had injuries, but the woman had acted in response to him, she said. 

“Police got it wrong and charged her with assault, took out a family violence intervention order against her,” Ms Jago said.

“It took a couple of returns to court for police to agree to withdraw and to understand that actually they had made a mistake.” 

Women rally against family violence in Queensland.
Women rally against family violence in Queensland.

In response, Victoria Police said in emergency scenarios it will now seek immediate interpreter assistance from neighbours or others present.

But, it said, an independent interpreter must be found as soon as practical and if the matter proceeded to court, police must engage an interpreter service.

Lawyers in Queensland have also expressed concern about survivors being named as perpetrators incorrectly in domestic violence matters.

The Women's Legal Service Victoria said Indigenous women and survivors who speak English as a second language were considered their most vulnerable clients as they may not have the ability or necessary support to be able to have their stories told.

Support from courts

The union representing interpreters and translators, Translators and Interpreters Australia, said vicarious trauma was real, documented, and there was a severe lack of support for it in the industry. 

"There is no clarity around availability of Employee Assistance Programs," said Victorian organiser Niki Baras.

"The companies that engage interpreters should be providing proper employment assistance programs engaging an independent counselling service which provides support but it must be visible to interpreters," she said.

Ms Baras said sometimes interpreters are not aware of employee programs being available. 

Queensland Courts said in family violence matters, an interpreter will be arranged for the first hearing while Queensland Police try to locate someone at the station who speaks the language or pay for an interpreter.

Meanwhile, Court Services Victoria said it is committed to ensuring all people have equal access to interpreting and translation services.

The agency added that it is the responsibility of the language services providers to provide support to interpreters, particularly regarding vicarious trauma.

Court Services Victoria said it entered into panel provisions for language services in courts and tribunals and the providers were Oncall, LanguageLoop and AUSLAN Connections.

If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000.

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