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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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."