Monday, May 15, 2006

How to interpret confidence breach

Q: Some time ago I was working as a court interpreter, translating what is said in court for the defendant and what the defendant says for the court. During a recess, the defendant confided that he did commit the crime and intended to take the stand and lie about it. I sought the advice of a colleague, who then informed the judge. As a result, I was chastised and lost my job. Was I wrong to divulge this information?

A: You were. Even if you made no explicit pledge of confidentiality, your role as an interpreter invites the defendant to confide in you, a relationship that does not terminate during a recess, out in the hall by the doughnut cart.

The connection you've cultivated -- emotionally, psychologically -- endures. Unless you cautioned the defendant that you might disclose what he said, you abused his trust and your position.

Robin G. Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defenders' organization in the Bronx (well, they would be), says of interpreters: "They become the only bridge between the attorney and the client. Those confidential communications can only occur with the interpreter, and those conversations are, indeed, confidential. There would be absolutely no way for a client to know that communications s/he makes just to the interpreter are subject to disclosure."

Steinberg is right. A defendant naturally sees you as a quasi member of his legal team, someone to whom he can speak freely. Moreover, his requiring an interpreter indicates that he has limited facility with English and so is isolated in the court setting, making him even more apt to be candid with someone who speaks his language.

What you could have done was speak to the defendant's lawyer.

Generally, in the United States, if a client baldly announces an intention to lie on the stand, his lawyer is ethically bound to prevent him. Here in New York State, if a lawyer is unable to do that, he or she may, but is not required to, speak to the judge.

While you acted badly, your colleague acted worse, imperiling the defendant and betraying your trust. I'm surprised that the judge spared him a sound thrashing, if that remedy is available under Seattle law.

Q: A marvelously astute and charming 93-year-old sold me a summer home on Cape Cod Bay at a reduced price with the condition that she could keep a portion of the condo until she died or could no longer negotiate the stairs. Now, five years later, she wants to install a stairway lift so that she can more easily get up and down. My partner and I have refused, feeling it is a violation of the original agreement. Were we right to do so?

A We can seldom be sure how we'll judge our own conduct in retrospect, but I'll go out on a limb and say that nobody ever reflected on his past and declared, "I'm darn proud of evicting that 98-year-old woman." That lift might be ugly, but some things are even uglier.

It may be that she has no legal right to make this demand, but the heart has rights of its own, and her 98 years allow her to appeal to kindness, to compassion, to generosity of spirit. There are times when contract law does not embody the highest aspirations of the human spirit.

In any case, the effect of this on you is bound to be minimal. It is a summer place, so for much of the year, she won't even be there. And after all, how many more summers will she be anywhere?


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