Galway woman makes history as first deaf person to deliberate on Irish jury
‘The deaf community need to know we’re well able to do whatever everybody else is doing’
Patricia Heffernan outside the Criminal Courts of Justice. ‘There was absolutely no issues around communication.’ Photograph: Laura Hutton
Irish legal history was made last month when a deaf person sat on a jury and deliberated on a verdict.
Patricia Heffernan became the first deaf person to take part in deliberations after a criminal trial when she and her fellow jurors on September 21st in the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin considered an indecent assault case.
The jury acquitted the accused on seven counts and were unable to reach a verdict on three counts.
When it came time to decide a verdict, she was accompanied into the deliberations by two Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreters who took an oath not to interfere with the debate.
It was the third time Heffernan had been called for jury service. On the two previous occasions she had been excused due to her condition.
“This time I filled in a form saying I would need an ISL interpreter and I got a response saying that would be no problem at all,” said Heffernan. “So I thought, maybe I’ll go for the experience.”
Covid-19 restrictions meant it was already an unusual experience. Instead of sitting in the jury box, the 12 jurors were dispersed around the courtroom in Dublin’s Criminal Courts of Justice to comply with social distancing.
The Court Service assigned two interpreters, Vanessa O’Connell and Michael Feeney, who took turns translating the evidence into ISL for Ms Heffernan during the six-day trial.
It soon became obvious a third interpreter was required to accompany her during breaks.
This allowed O’Connell and Feeney time to discuss how to accurately interpret certain legal terms which may be confusing.
“ISL is my first language. English is my second language. So there were terms in English that would mean one thing but in a legal sense mean something different,” Heffernan said.
“There was a lot of terminology used that I would not be familiar with, like reasonable doubt. The interpreters were really good about explaining it.”
Judge Sinéad Ní Chúlacháin had to occasionally tell the parties not to talk over each other for the sake of the interpreters. According to one source familiar with the trial, this had the effect of making proceedings easier to follow for everybody involved, not just Heffernan.
“There were absolutely no issues around communication. Everything ran so smooth. I didn’t feel under any type of pressure,” Heffernan said.
Heffernan, who works in the Passport Office and is originally from Galway, is the second deaf person to sit on a jury but the first to deliberate on a verdict. In 2017, Richard Dudley became the first deaf person to sit on a jury, but the trial collapsed at an early stage.
She is prevented by law from discussing the content of the deliberations but said they ran “smoothly”.
“It was very interesting listening to other people’s point of view. There was no pressure, no difficulty.”
‘A bit awkward’
In the beginning the other jurors felt “a bit awkward” as they got used to talking to Heffernan through an interpreter. “But it became so natural. After a bit we were cracking jokes and having fun.”
One of her interpreters, O’Connell, said at first she was nervous about the deliberations, despite having 15 years’ experience as an ISL interpreter. “After hearing all the specifics of the trial, to be silent during the deliberations was very difficult.”
After they returned a verdict, Judge Ní Chúlacháin noted the historic landmark and told Heffernan she was free to talk about her experience as long as she complied with the in-camera rule which applies to sexual assault cases.
It was the second time Heffernan has made history this year. In March, she became the first deaf person to swim the “Ice Mile” challenge at the Wild Water Pool in Co Armagh, in water at a temperature of under 5 degrees.
“The deaf community need to know we’re all well able to do whatever everybody else is doing in society. We’re all equal. The only thing is we have a different language.”