Language Access

Survey of Obstacles to Language Access in California Courts

by Camille Taiara
Jan. 6, 2016

CFI thanks all interpreters who documented obstacles to language access in California courts as part of our month-long campaign, held October 13 through November 13, 2015. We received incident reports from 14 counties: Fresno, Tulare, El Dorado, Orange, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, San Francisco, Sonoma, Napa, Santa Cruz and Sacramento.

The general themes that emerged from these reports can be broken down as follows:
  • Judicial officers and attorneys routinely waiving interpreters on limited English proficient (LEP) parties’ behalf (without obtaining a knowing and intelligent waiver, as required), even when interpreters are readily available;
  • Short-staffing of certified/registered interpreters – particularly in certain counties, and for languages other-than-Spanish (OTS) – leading to long delays, continuances, or cases going forward without providing interpretation services to the LEP parties;
  • Using lay persons to “interpret,” (including minors) who do not have the skills or knowledge to actually interpret, who may not be neutral, and who almost certainly neglect to abide by professional standards such as repeating everything that’s said, maintaining confidentiality or avoiding speaking on behalf of the LEP persons;
  • Ignorance on the part of judicial officers and staff about language access standards and practices;
  • Failure of the courts to adequately inform court users, judicial officers and staff of the expansion of interpreter services to civil matters, and drastic differences between counties in which types of civil cases (if any) are covered;
  • Resistance to providing interpretation services, even when funds and interpreters are available; and
  • A dearth of printed materials in languages other than English – effectively failing to notify parties about basic details, procedures, deadlines, rights and responsibilities associated with their cases.
Of note is that the first three categories of problems were evidenced not only in civil matters where services are currently being expanded and were previously provided ad hoc, but also in criminal cases and other case types for which the California courts have been providing interpreter services for decades.

We believe the reports we received represent the tip of the iceberg, as they depend on interpreters happening to be present to witness the problems in the first place, and then documenting and reporting them. What is clear is that the incidents reported reflect a general lack of concern for meaningful language access in California courts: LEP court users’ ability to fully understand and participate in their cases is still not seen as a fundamental right. It is highly troubling that no one is tracking these problems more methodically.

CFI encourages interpreters (as well as attorneys, LEP court users and others) to continue reporting language access barriers as they occur, by clicking on the “Report Language Access Concerns” link at www.calinterpreters.org. We will be using the information gathered to create a survey of interpreters to garner a more comprehensive sense of how widespread these problems are, and of any other types of obstacles to meaningful access that may exist but were not adequately captured during the campaign.