It’s surprising to know that the multi-ethnic and culturally and linguistic diverse state of California is experiencing a shortage of courtroom interpreters.
Investigation into the issue by federal law enforcement started seven years ago. Back then, two Korean-speaking women complained that they were not given court interpreters in Los Angeles.
Several other courts were also investigated and were found at fault. From then on, several courts, including those in California started working to comply with the civil rights law of the United States.
The law says that there should be no discrimination based on a person’s origin. If the courts fail, it could mean that their federal support could be withdrawn.
Courtroom Interpreters: The Reality
Around 220 languages are spoken by residents of California and the shortage of courtroom interpreters in the state is quite challenging. It’s because the court system in California is the largest in the United States.
The state courts handle around eight million cases annually. They have a difficult time finding trained interpreters.
In California homes, 44 percent of residents speak other languages instead of English. Surveys have found that seven million residents in the state indicated that they couldn’t speak English very well.
There was a time when litigants who did not speak English had to resolve disputes over child custody, get restraining orders and fight evictions on their own.
In some cases, children acted as courtroom interpreters for their parents, and there was an instance when the woman who wanted to obtain a restraining order against her abusive husband even ended up interpreting for him!
On another occasion, the competency of the interpreter was called into question. The interpreter told the defendant that he was being accused of “violacion,” which the defendant adamantly denied.
In fact, the defendant was in court for a traffic violation. The incompetent interpreter mistook the English word for violation to mean violacion in Spanish, which actually translates to “rape.” The interpreter should have said “infracción de tráfico.”
Manuel J. Covarrubias, Ventura County Superior Court Judge recalled that in one case, they had to use a ”relay system” in a case. The defendant only spoke Mixteco, which is an indigenous language.
The court found a non-English speaking interpreter, who translated Mixteco into Spanish and the court got another interpreter to translate Spanish into English.
It’s unfortunate that the need for courtroom interpreters in California and the law’s requirement to provide more qualified interpreters to serve the courts come at a time when the court system in the state has yet to recover from budget cuts. Some of the judges’ positions are still vacant and a number of courtrooms are still closed.
There is still a ray of hope, as Governor Jerry Brown and Legislature are both sympathetic to the campaign for language access in the courts. In the last fiscal year, the local government has provided $7 million to the program.
California courtrooms still need qualified interpreters in several languages, including Punjabi, Arabic, Filipino (Tagalog), Russian, Cantonese, Farsi, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese and American Sign.
The need for courtroom interpreters in California for other languages could expand, based on the location of the courts. There is still a need for Lao, Hmong, Malayalam, the various dialects of the Aleutian Islands, Japanese and Cambodian/Khmer. Other languages and dialects include those that are not frequently spoken in other states as well as Igbo, Pashto, Bhojpuri, Cebuano, Oromo, Maithili, Uzbek, Tarasco, Kannada, Xiang, Hakka, Wu, Telugu and Mixtec.
Plan for Language Access
In January 2015, the Judicial Council of California adapted the “Strategic Plan for Language Access in the California Courts.” It has been two years since it was enforced and California requires courts to have interpreters available for all cases involving non-English speakers.
In December last year, 47 out of the 85 county courts in the state declared that they were offering interpreters in high-priority civil cases. These include elder abuse, conservatorship, guardianship, evictions, child custody, protective orders and other matters involving family law.
California has been providing courtroom interpreters for juvenile and criminal cases. However, the law requires them to offer interpreters in civil courtrooms as well. But according to Justice Terence L. Bruiniers of the 1st District Court of Appeals, it is not possible to have the right number of qualified courtroom interpreters in California in all the languages used in every courtroom at the instance of their need, even if their goal is to have interpreters available for all types of cases.
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The Current Situation
Today, there are around 2,000 qualified courtroom interpreters in California. Still, this number is not enough to fill the demand.
Other issues make getting more interpreters problematic. Certification is difficult, as the rate of passing state examination only reaches 10 percent. The average salary is about $77,000 per anum.
Interpreting per se is a very difficult task because interpreters have to be proficient in everyday language. For courtroom interpreters, it becomes harder. Aside from everyday language, they need deeper understanding of the languages used. They also need to fully understand and translate expert evidence and legal jargon. It is far different from being just bilingual.
They have to be a very good listener to catch what each person is saying. They should quickly understand the full meaning of what is being said in order to interpret them within an environment that could be noisy and hostile. Interpreters’ competency should be at its highest.
Getting courtroom interpreters in various languages is proving to be a very steep challenge, because you never know which language is needed. It could be Spanish most of the time but there can be days when there is demand for various languages.
The county courts of Merced, Sacramento and Ventura plan to launch a pilot project. Because of the scarcity of interpreters, they want interpreters to participate through live video feed in short court hearings.
However, many courtroom interpreters are nervous about the plan, citing the importance of seeing the face of a litigant when doing their work. They would not be able to alert a judge if documents are about to fall off the desk, which could drown out the words being said.
While California wants to fully enforce the language access plan, there is bound to be resistance from tradition-bound judges. They also have to consider that it takes time to get certified interpreters. California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar said that it’s not a project that can be successfully finished in three years. There should be constant vigilance and long-term commitment to the project.
In some county courts, the languages offered are still limited. Moreover, some litigants are required to have their own interpreters, even if state law says civil cases should have courtroom interpreters as well. A regional counsel for Legal Services of Northern California said that some counties use phone interpreters.
Judges say that the problem is not just the lack of qualified courtroom interpreters in California. Legal documents must be translated. Translation in several languages is also needed for various court-ordered services, such as the courts’ program for alcohol abuse. Moreover, the court signs should be translated into many languages as well.
Justice Terence L. Bruiniers summed it up – it would be very difficult to get the right number of qualified interpreters in all the languages needed for every courtroom in California at the time they need the courtroom interpreters. On many occasion, they have to get interpreters from other states.
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Solutions to the Courtroom Interpreter Shortage
Recruiting courtroom interpreters is costly. That is a fact. It is also difficult to find interpreters for less common and exotic languages. Because of this fact, the Judicial Council of California started the video remote interpretation (VRI) project. They are comparing two vendors to gauge participant feedback and effectiveness of communication technology. The two vendors are both using Cisco systems.
Some organizations are offering solutions, as detailed below.
- Increase suppliers, competition and coverage for video remote interpretation. The use of VRI in the past was focused on court-certified interpreters for American Sign Language (ASL). The method limits the availability of interpreters, which could risk violating the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American Disability Act in case of non-availability of a court-certified ASL interpreter. There are companies that can offer VRI services with trained interpreters in many foreign languages.
- Use telephone interpretation to improve before and after court communication. Some counties implement telephone interpretation, which is secure and cost-effective. California courts can access the service equally. Phone interpreting can ease the burden on the court system to provide language services for the court-appointed programs, services and other legal information requirements. The telephone interpretation can have a live interpreter or recorded message, to provide answers, information and directions.
- Outsourcing interpreters. Court interpretation does not have a standardized national accredited certification. Each state has its own set of requirements and may only be for a number of common languages. In California for example, certification exams for court interpreters are offered on selected languages, including Vietnamese, Filipino (Tagalog), Spanish, Russian, Punjabi, Portuguese, Mandarin, Korean, Khmer, Farsi, Cantonese, Eastern Armenian, Arabic and American Sign Language.
California’s language access plan includes a provisional qualification. This means outsourcing of legal language interpreters can be offered to language services providers (LSPs) when needed. This is a very viable solution because it solves the lack of qualified court interpreters in the state. It reduces expenses and labor costs. At the same time, the courts are able to comply with federal law requirements.
Likewise, it is very beneficial to the courts as the LSPs have a team of qualified and professionally trained linguists. They are already qualified and have the credentials. They do the same type of work. The only difference is that they have not passed the state certification test in California or passed the oral and written test as well as completed the requirements of the California Judicial Council.
Just as Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said, the shortage cannot be met in three years. The courts of California could benefit from exploring other methods via a Request for Proposal (RPF). They should explore telephone interpreting, document translation services, VRI and outsourcing. Many LSPs can fill the gap.