California Bar Journal
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Dearth of courtroom interpreters raises the language barrier
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other solutions to the problem that will enable people to have meaningful access to the courts."

Robinson, a partner with McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, also points out that "access to justice doesn't begin and end at the courthouse door." It starts, he suggests, with the ability to understand legal proceedings, legal documents and various consumer information, and the ability to communicate well enough to obtain legal help.

More than 35 percent of California's residents speak a language other than English at home. Even for the criminal and juvenile court caseload alone, there are not enough certified or registered interpreters - 1,300 in all - to go around. And 20 counties do not have a single certified court interpreter living within the county.

"I don't think there is anybody anywhere that underplays the importance of understanding court proceedings," said Lesley Duncan, supervising analyst for the Administrative Office of the Courts' Court Interpreters Program.

Although the courts spend $69 million annually on court interpreters, "It doesn't even come close to addressing the need," Duncan says.

Another stumbling block is the high level of skill required to become a certified court interpreter. The pass rate - while similar to that of such exams nationwide - is just 14 percent. The Judicial Council certifies court interpreters in various "designated" languages and "registers" interpreters in less common languages. Currently, certification is available in eight languages. In addition, examinations are being prepared for five more newly designated languages. Certified court interpreters work as independent contractors at $265 a day.

Mentoring workshops

Seeking ways of addressing the shortage, the Judicial Council has sponsored - with some success - mentoring and preparatory workshops for people whose failing test scores meet certain criteria. In addition, it has funded the development of educational curriculum for higher- education and extension programs. Recently, said Duncan, a pilot program was launched to provide interpreters via telephone for short proceedings. "We're desperately seeking bilingual, bi-literate folks," she says.

Carlos Cerecedo, president of the California Court Interpreters Asso-ciation, sees education as the answer. Instrumental in setting up the nation's first bachelor's program in interpreting and translating at California State University in Long Beach last year, Cerecedo is on a crusade of sorts. "Once this first year goes by, I'm going to start knocking on the doors of junior colleges," he said.

What he envisions for 2010, he says, are masters and doctoral programs in interpreting and translating, and a stronger emphasis on language programs for youngsters. He also would like to see a required 15-hour course for law students on language issues and how to use interpreters. Recently, he helped launch such a course at the Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law.

California is "the Ellis Island of the 21st Century, and we have not realized the responsibility that comes with that," he says. "This is an issue that has to be resolved. It can be resolved with education."

And expanding the ranks of qualified court interpreters is not the only challenge in such a diverse state. Just talk to Gregory Drapac, the Los Angeles County Superior Court's manager of interpreter services.

On any given day, some 425 interpreters are at work in more than 50 courthouses throughout Los Angeles County, Drapac says. Each day, calls from courts with unexpected needs pour in. Sometimes, the request involves first identifying the speaker's language from a 900-page listing of the world's languages. Drapac's pool of interpreters speaks more than 100 different languages. But to find interpreters of less common languages, a full-time assignment clerk does internet searches, posts jobs in chat rooms, calls educational institutions and contacts consulates. Some-times, if the case is serious, an interpreter is brought in from another country. Recently, an English-sign-language interpreter - as opposed to an American-sign-language interpreter - was flown in from overseas.

It is always a juggling act. Last August, for example, Drapac was short an average of 30 Spanish-certified court interpreters most days. That particular problem dissipated, at least temporarily, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, when an interpreter cannot be located, court proceedings wind up delayed or even continued.

A 1998 survey of court administrators around the state suggested that at least 3,500 court matters were postponed that year for lack of an interpreter. In some cases, a court will resort to using an ad hoc interpreter because it is the only option available. In 2001, an Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) study of the state's largest courts found that non-certified, non-registered interpreters were appointed in some 15 percent of court matters.

Delays are common

When an interpreter is legally mandated, the court must use a certified court interpreter for a "designated" language, except when "good cause" can be shown. In such cases, at the very least, the court must appoint an interpreter of some kind. In most civil matters, however, the judge may simply delay the case to give the non-English-speaking person time to find an interpreter.

"One of the issues is that for an indigent person who can't afford an interpreter, there's currently no real funding in place to deal with the issue," Robinson says. "How many people default because . . . there are simply too many barriers to mounting any sort of defense?"

Courts, community-based organizations and legal services providers are exploring various ways of assisting those who speak little or no English. Some local courts have added bilingual staff to help the public. The Judicial Council, through the AOC, is also translating its self-help web site and all domestic violence forms into various languages.

In addition, some organizations around the state have developed collaborative efforts to help address language barriers. In Alameda County, for example, numerous legal services programs, community-based organizations and the county bar association recently joined together to create a "language bank" of affordable interpreters. In operation for a year, the Legal Language Access Project (LLAP) provides a 36-hour training program that has created some 50 "community interpreters" of more than 20 languages.

While not court-certified, such community interpreters are trained in the practices, skills and ethics of interpreting in a legal setting, says Elaine Chen, LLAP's project manager. Their primary role, she says, is to help clients communicate with their attorneys or legal services program advocates.

Lack of skills

Chen warns against using ad hoc interpreters - often relatives and friends who may not have sufficient skills - in any legal setting, if at all possible. At the very least, she suggests, attorneys should provide such volunteers with some training.

"There's a lot of risk in using ad hoc interpreters," she says. "Often, it's the ad hoc interpreter speaking more than the client. Or, the ad hoc interpreter might have an interest."

Chen and others suggest that there is simply too much at stake. Stories from attorneys and judges illustrate how a few words can make a difference.

In a recent welfare fraud and forgery case, for example, the judge asked the Cambodian defendant if she had anything more to say. The interpreter, however, reportedly interpreted the judge's words as: "Don't say anything."

Fourth District Court of Appeals Associate Justice Eileen Moore, who chairs the Judicial Council's Court Interpreters Advisory Panel, tells another story: A victim was testifying in a robbery trial when the interpreter interrupted to explain that the testimony - given in an Asian language - had two possible interpretations. Moore, the judge presiding in the trial, instructed the interpreter to give the jury both interpretations. One was "That belongs to me." The other was "Give it to me or you will die."

The Commission on Access to Justice plans to research the scope of the language access problems in the system and find out how various entities are addressing them.

For those in the legal trenches, the striking need for qualified interpreters throughout the legal system seems to carry a particular urgency.

 "It's an important subject," Robinson said. "And it's getting worse in the sense that the demographics are such that the demand is increasingly outstripping the supply."