Interpreter fund surplus continues growing despite plans to expand language services 

LOS ANGELES _ The Language Access Plan (LAP) task force held a public meeting in Los Angeles recently to talk about the status of implementation efforts and to hear from stakeholders, including legal aid attorneys, community members and interpreters.

Panels discussed the status of the LAP implementation focusing on three areas, expansion of interpreter services to civil cases, the development of training and resources on language access, and funding and monitoring plans.

Public comments highlighted that while good policy is being developed and some courts are taking concrete steps to expand services and improve language access overall, many courts are not yet clear on what to do and have not begun a real expansion of services.

Maureen Keffer, a legal aid attorney who works with indigenous communities on language access issues, told task force members that in an informal survey she conducted, 16 courts said they were not familiar with the expansion authorized effective January of this year.

The Judicial Council has submitted a budget request to the governor to increase funding for the expansion, while the unspent interpreter budget surplus continues to grow, currently at $14 million according to Judge Steve Austin, chair or the Court Interpreter Advisory Panel. Stakeholders at the meeting and panelists commented that the judicial branch is unlikely to get more money from the legislature while funding is available and unused. The Judicial Council predicts the surplus will be spent quickly as courts expand, but that predication has not been borne out of the past year. CFI pointed out to the task force that the approach of many courts _ providing interpreters for civil only “if available” based on current staffing levels _  means the surplus is not being used, and interpreters are spread too thin, leaving gaps in services in criminal and civil, and leaving LEP parties who need interpreters still facing language barriers.

Interpreter comments at the meeting focused on the need to recognize the skills of certified and registered interpreters, include us more in the implementation process and task force, provide training to judges and court staff on language access issues, and fully utilize our expertise in the courts, including for work outside of courtrooms that is often as important to a case as the actual proceedings. CFI representatives also emphasized that improving interpreter pay and working conditions for employees and contractors must be part of the plan to ensure interpreter services are available and maintain high quality services.

Task Force Chair Justice Mariano Cuellar said the project is monumental and it will take time to fully address language access needs and get from policy to making needed changes. After taking in the day’s comments, Cuellar said what he heard left him with several important takeaways. First, the need is urgent, because people face serious language barriers to accessing the courts. Second, that the problem is solvable, and third, that we all have to work together to achieve the goal of full and meaningful access to the court system in California.

A report from the task force on progress is available here.


Tags: *union, *language access