The pitfalls of acting for a client whose first language isn’t English

In an ever-shrinking world, our society is becoming increasingly multi-cultural. This brings both benefits and problems, one of which is understanding each other… or not!  Misunderstandings can have serious consequences, especially where they relate to the law. 

John Kilmister is one of our personal injury specialists. And, together with his wife Anikó – a professional freelance interpreter/translator – he operates a specialist Hungarian Unit from Pattinson & Brewer’s Bristol office. John acts for Hungarian speakers pursuing claims as a result of accidents in England and Wales.

What follows is the essence of a talk given by the pair on 14 September 2010 to the APIL South West Regional Group meeting. You’ll find a full account here.

Where to start?

When acting for a client whose first language is not English, the first thing we do is to carefully assess their language abilities. Because although they might appear to have a good command of English, this can be misleading. Their understanding might, for instance, be excellent… but only in a restricted field. For example their immediate working environment. Outside that, they might have a very limited vocabulary and knowledge of ‘the vernacular’. Which could lead to major problems when discussing, say, the details of a traffic accident.

Don’t be afraid to ask!

Our most important piece of advice is don’t be afraid to ask people about their English language abilities. They might be glad of the services of an interpreter, but too embarrassed to ask for themselves. Trying to ‘bluff their way’ through a legal meeting presents real dangers, when even a small mistake can have very serious (and expensive) consequences.

A client may well instinctively reply “yes” to a question to avoid appearing ignorant or foolish. When in reality they haven’t a clue as to what is being said (we’ve all done it on holiday)! And if all this sounds vaguely comical, there is a serious point for lawyers. Imagine how expensive it might potentially be, for example, to act on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis for Manuel in Fawlty Towers without an interpreter…

Language issues surrounding an accident

Language can be an important factor within the accident itself. Consider, for example, the workplace. Where training given – or warning signs/notices displayed – might not have been properly understood. And although a client’s English might be fine in a classroom setting, what about on a noisy factory floor? If they were shouted instructions by a Glaswegian supervisor whose accent made Rab C. Nesbitt sound like a Radio Four presenter?

Dealing with an interpreter/translator

Then, when a lawyer feels that language support is required, there are the practicalities of working with an interpreter to be considered. Is everything to be translated verbatim? How much should the interpreter say at a time? Will important documents like medical reports be made available to the interpreter in advance?

The many aspects of acting for a client whose first language is not English do take some getting used to. And the planning and effort required to sort it all out shouldn’t be under-estimated. But, on the bottom line, tackling this often-neglected area of legal practice is extremely rewarding and worthwhile.

Pattinson & Brewer

John Kilmister is a solicitor with Pattinson & Brewer in Bristol and can be contacted by e-mail at or 0117 917 1100. Anikó Kilmister is an interpreter practising under the name Dynamic Linguistics and can be contacted by e-mail at or on 07855 560 450.

Pattinson & Brewer

Accidents and Disease, Europe, Marcus Weatherby,
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