The rise of the immigrant community means that there are more non-English speakers in the United States, which means that interpreting services are much more in demand in many industry sectors and the public service departments of the country.
The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division maintains the constitutional and civil rights of all the people within the society. The division is the one that enforces the federal laws prohibiting discrimination due to national origin, familial status, color, race, sex, religion and disability.
The enforcement of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as other executive orders and other laws prohibiting discrimination in activities and programs of organizations receiving federal funding is undertaken by the following:
- DOJ Office of Justice Programs
- Offices for Civil Rights
- Federal Coordination and Compliance Section of the Civil Rights Division.
On the other hand, the Courts Language Access Initiative, through the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, ensures the rights of every person in the United States, regardless of their skills in the English language and their national origin. The initiative allows them to meaningfully participate in programs and proceedings in the state courts, following the regulations and provisions against discrimination under Title IV of the Civil Rights.
Provision of language services in the U.S. court systems
It is the function of the court systems in any country to give justice to every person. The court’s legitimacy is eroded when the court policy limits the rights of certain groups of people to be heard.
The people who work in the state court system have the mission to preserve the judicial system’s legitimacy and prevent the miscarriage of justice any time. One of the initiatives in their mission is to provide quality language services when needed to allow people with limited ability in the English language to take part in court services and proceedings. This means that interpreting and translation services are vital in providing significant access to the U.S. courts and in maintaining the country’s justice system.
The terminology used in the legal system is complex and highly structured. It can be stressful to people involved in court cases. It requires careful attention when providing language services so that the people who are facing a judicial process do not suffer additional unconstitutional and unfair burdens that can prevent them from their full participation in the court proceedings. Providing a good interpreter ensures that the testimony from witnesses who do not speak English means that the court will be able to establish the facts and administer justice properly.
Lack of interpreting services
Although there are laws mandating the courts to provide language services to people who have limited ability to speak English, there is still a glaring lack of interpreters in the U.S. courts. Several reasons are given regarding the issue. While it is waiting to be resolved, many people who are not fluent in English are suffering.
Another thing that compounds the problem is misinterpretation. Many observers, such as Patricia Michelsen-King, who is a Spanish interpretation teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalled some incidents when court interpreters made mistakes.
In one occasion, while observing the court proceedings in a courtroom in Chesterfield, Virginia, she heard a man inside the courtroom shouting (in Spanish) that he did not rape anyone.
It turned out that the man was being held for running a red light. However, he became a victim of bad interpreting. The interpreter told him that he was in court due to a violación. The term caused the man to make the outburst because in Spanish, violación means rape instead of violation.
According to Ms. Michelsen-King, the right term is infracción. Ms. Michelsen-King was at the court at that time because she was starting that day as a court interpreter. She talked to the man and explained. The man admitted to the traffic violated but continued to vehemently deny that he raped someone.
Causes of misunderstandings in the court
It is no longer a surprise that misunderstandings are more common in the local and state courts in the U.S. Many of these locations do not hire tested court interpreters. They also ignore the federal regulations regarding the provision of interpreters for civil litigants and criminal defendants who have limited English language skills. Since these people are not able to wade through the complicated legal system, more often than not, their constitutional rights are jeopardized.
Statement from the American Bar Association
The American Bar Association recognizes that the lack of fully qualified court interpreters is a big issue. In a statement the association released, it said that several evidence show that people appearing before the courts who did not speak English very well were not able to enforce or protect their legal rights because they were unable to access language services as provided by law. Their inability to have an interpreter or translator had dire effects on their family, liberty, property and life interests.
The statement was released by the American Bar Association to urge the U.S. courts to have sufficient funding and establish standards for quality interpreter services.
Lack of interpreters at federal courts
The issue regarding lack of skilled court interpreters is not very glaring at the federal court level. Interpreters for the federal courts are required to ace a competitive exam. Many states in the U.S. certify the court interpreters they use. The interpreters are required to pass a language skills test.
However, the state exams for interpreters are not as strict and exhaustive as the federal exams. The local courts and many state courts often allow interpreters without certification who have not passed the exams to serve in court proceedings. There are many states as well that fail to provide free interpreting services in their civil and criminal courts, which contradicts the federal mandate.
Response of the DOJ
Although the U.S. Department of Justice has already investigated the courts in Rhode Island, North Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Hawaii and Colorado since 2010 for their failure to provide free interpreting services, the issue is still to be resolved.
About 25% of the residents in the United States do not speak English very well. And the percentage is rising because of the number of immigrants entering the country. Thus the need for competent court interpreters is constantly in focus.
An interpreter is not only there for the witness or the defendant. He or she is there to help everyone, as the interpreter sees to it that the lawyers, the judges, the juries, the accused or the witnesses, as well as the observers understand the entire court proceedings. With the help of interpreters and translators, the lawyers and the judges will be able to do their jobs properly.
Access to court interpreting services
According to the ruling, the courts should provide free interpreting services if they do not want to lose federal funding. Still many states and local courts fail to comply. Some states do not certify their court interpreters, while several states only prefer to use certified interpreters.
Various reasons are given why there is still a lack of qualified court interpreters in the U.S. legal system.
- Many states do not have the proper certification tests for uncommon and rare languages. Even if the state has the right type of test, it is possible that the exam takers were not able to pass it. This is given as one of the reasons why some judges allow uncertified interpreters or even someone who is familiar with the uncommon language to do the interpreting work.
- Formal education in some of the languages could be lacking as well. About 350 languages are spoken in the United States. What is the probability that a person speaking a minority language ends up in court?
- The dilemma is that interpreters may study and speak any of the languages commonly spoken in the U.S. such as Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, Russian, German, Italian and Portuguese. But how many are willing to be interpreters for rare languages such as Arapaho, Blackfoot, Assiniboine or Hän, which are not even immigrant languages but rather indigenous languages? For this reason, you’d think of economics. Specializing in rare languages does not guarantee that you’ll be interpreting in the courts often.
- Passing the certification exam for court interpreters is not easy. The test checks the language skills, including their knowledge of legal terminology. They are also tested on their simultaneous interpreting ability.
- Formal education in languages is also required, otherwise, the interpreter will develop the tendency to skip unfamiliar words and miss the legal nuances that are very essential in the courtroom.
- Other reasons that contribute to the lack of court interpreters in the United States include the increasing linguistic diversity, the retirement of experienced court interpreters and the geographical locations of available interpreters in a particular language. Some courts have to postpone the court proceedings because an interpreter is not available. In some cases, the courts have to spend more to transport a qualified interpreter in a specific language for an important case.
Unless these important issues are resolved, the lack of court interpreting services will continue.
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