Hong Kong’s public watchdog has urged the government to compile a central database of freelance interpreters which could be shared by various departments to improve efficiency.

The Office of the Ombudsman said the move was necessary to ensure that law enforcement departments can efficiently engage interpreters, and that Hongkongers of all backgrounds have equal access to public services.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Its recommendations, released in a report on Thursday, came after the judiciary stopped disclosing its list of approved court interpreters in 2018.

The judiciary administration (JA) had told the ombudsman it was “not suitable” for the judiciary to coordinate outside interpretation services for other government departments.

Ombudsman Winnie Chiu urged the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, which oversees the implementation of government guidelines on foreign interpretation services, to establish a central database “as soon as practicable.”

“After JA stopped providing the list and its updates to other parties, the law enforcement departments’ arrangements for interpretation services would inevitably become less efficient,” Thursday’s report read.

Winnie Chiu
Ombudsman Winnie Chiu. Photo: The Office of the Ombudsman.

“Without an up-to-date register list of freelance interpreters, it has become more difficult for departments to look for experienced, foreign-language interpreters familiar with court proceedings,” Chiu told reporters.

The database should include interpreters’ personal details, past experience and their availability schedule, the ombudsman recommended.

Under government guidelines, every government department is required to “proactively offer” interpretation services for people who cannot communicate effectively in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.

‘Boost public confidence’

The ombudsman also recommended requiring interpreters to sign a standardised code of practice and confidentiality agreement before being added to the central database, to ensure better quality control and “boost public confidence.”

Chiu added that the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau should establish ways for government departments to consolidate information on interpreters’ performance.

Photo: GovHK.

“Each government department keeps their own records of unsatisfactory performance of interpreters,” Chiu said. “In our view, such practice is not only inefficient but also not helpful to the government’s overall monitoring of interpreters’ performance.”

The ombudsman also urged the bureau to investigate public demand for interpreters of various Chinese dialects to carry out any necessary “follow-up action.”

‘Promoting equal opportunities’

The bureau said it had accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations and would “study them carefully.”

“The government is committed to eliminating racial discrimination and promoting equal opportunities for people of diverse race,” a spokesperson said on Thursday.

The department said it would co-ordinate with the relevant departments “with a view to further facilitating the procurement of foreign languages interpretation services by public authorities.”

The Office of The Ombudsman was established in 1989 to improve government services by investigating complaints and through self-initiated studies.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.