And Justice for All?

By Michael Schubert

Launched in 1997, the State Commission on Access to Justice is chartered with exploring ways to improve access to civil justice for low- and moderate-income Californians. The Commission’s new policy paper, “Language Barriers to Justice in California,” documents the need for increased court-interpreter resources in the Golden State.

In our profession and with our various backgrounds, NCTA members know first-hand that California is home to one of the most ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse populations on the planet. According to data from the 2000 census, roughly 26% of California’s 34 million residents are foreign-born, representing over 220 languages! This extraordinary diversity can be a great asset to the artistic landscape and to the general marketplace of ideas and perspectives, but it also poses huge cultural and linguistic challenges for providers of government services.

These challenges become clearer when one delves further into the census data: a full 10% of California’s 2000 population arrived during the 1990s, and rates of immigration continue to rise. More importantly, 20% of Californians speak English less than “very well,” meaning that they require an interpreter when appearing in court as a defendant, litigant, or witness.

While criminal defendants, witnesses, parties in small claims cases, and parties in a narrow class of civil cases have the right to an interpreter, no such right has been recognized for parties in most civil cases, including evictions, repossessions, creditor/debtor cases, wage garnishments, and family law matters. The judge may assign an interpreter at his or her discretion, but, not surprisingly, there is usually a lack of state funds available to pay the costs when the affected parties are unable to. The issue touches on the need for written translation services as well, since most court forms are available only in English. Even where such forms exist in another language, by law they still must be submitted and filed in English.

Aggravating the growing need for court interpreter services has been a concurrent shrinking of California’s pool of qualified interpreters. Court records show that between 1995 and 2005, the number of certified court interpreters for Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic, Japanese, Tagalog, and Portuguese fell from 1,665 to 1,238—a 25% drop! The decline in Spanish interpreters, who make up 88% of this pool, has been nearly 30%. In desperation, the courts have been forced to rely on unqualified interpreters, including relatives and children, with the predictably dubious results for the administration of justice that hardly needs emphasizing among Translorial readers.

Court administrators have stepped up their efforts to attract and retain qualified interpreters, including the launching of a pilot program incorporating specialized telephone equipment, workshops, recruitment campaigns, collaboration with UC Berkeley and UCLA, better cooperation with local courts, and a redesign of the court interpreter program website. The single greatest problem hampering all of these efforts, however, is the lack of adequate funding. Compensation for California’s certified and registered court interpreters currently stands at $265 per day and $147 per half day, significantly lower than rates at the federal level and far below private-sector prices.

The Commission on Access to Justice outlines five principal recommendations:

  • Adopt a comprehensive language access policy for courts.
  • Develop specific recommendations to implement language access policy.
  • Compile existing data and conduct additional research.
  • Reevaluate system for recruitment, training, compensation, and certification of court interpreters.
  • Evaluate role of lawyers and bar associations, legal services programs, law schools, and law libraries.

The Commission’s full 68-page report is posted at http://www.calbar.ca.gov/ under “Reports” in the left-hand column. The Commission explicitly welcomes the feedback, suggestions, or contributions of NCTA members!

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