Soapbox

For equal justice, we need court interpreters

A sign stating no interpreters are provided is posted on a San Mateo Superior Court courtroom last November. California’s Judicial Council approved a plan to extend free interpretation services to all cases by 2017.
A sign stating no interpreters are provided is posted on a San Mateo Superior Court courtroom last November. California’s Judicial Council approved a plan to extend free interpretation services to all cases by 2017. The Associated Press

In a state where nearly 40 percent of the residents speak a language other than English at home and nearly 7 million have limited English skills, there is no excuse for the case of the renter who had to rely on his landlady’s interpreter during court proceedings.

The man settled his case in the hallway of the Los Angeles courthouse with the interpreter’s help, but he did not fully trust the accuracy of what he was told. “There was no one I could call to interpret for me,” the man said later. “When the judge addressed the parties in the morning, I did not understand anything he said.”

California’s courts make up the largest judicial system in America. Yet even when courts embrace new ways of helping the public, funding for court services has not always kept up – and language access has been a prime example. It’s a problem in many diverse states, but it is especially urgent in California, where more than 200 languages are spoken and nearly 7 million people have limited English-language skills.

Gov. Jerry Brown took a major step to strengthen language assistance in our courts by proposing a $7 million expansion in his budget.

A bedrock principle of our justice system is that everyone is entitled to equal justice. That principle is imperiled by lack of funding to support qualified interpreters in criminal and civil proceedings, as well as translation of forms for domestic violence survivors and others needing access to the courts.

Not long ago, California’s judiciary failed to acknowledge the problems caused by the lack of language access assistance in civil cases. The late state Supreme Court Justice Matthew Tobriner challenged that failure in 1978, observing that equal justice in civil matters requires a “fair and meaningful hearing” that includes providing language interpretation to litigants so they can “understand the very language in which the proceedings are conducted.”

Recognizing that need, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye created a judicial working group to strengthen the courts’ capacity to meet language access needs. In 2014, the statewide Judicial Council adopted a strategic plan, and created a task force to implement that plan. Our priority now is to make this comprehensive plan a reality in every courthouse across the state.

The task force has often heard about problems as well as potential solutions. Members of the public described having to rely on relatives or school-age children for help in understanding court proceedings. Parents appearing in family court explained how they were unable to understand or be understood, and faced the prospect of losing custody of their children when only their spouses understood English.

Presently, courts use funds allocated for language interpretation primarily in criminal cases. But as testimony from the task force hearings showed, failure to provide interpretation in civil cases could heavily burden people who depend on the courts to resolve disputes.

People from all walks of life deserve access to the courts. English and civics education are key, but are not enough. Enacting the governor’s proposal – along with further court innovation – would galvanize efforts in California to ensure fairness and dignity. We hope legislators and the public will support this initiative so California leads the nation in ensuring equal access to justice for everyone.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar is an associate justice of the California Supreme Court and can be contacted at communications@jud.ca.gov. Dennis W. Hayashi is an Alameda County Superior Court judge and can be contacted at dhayashi@alameda.courts.ca.gov.

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