When two Korean-speakers complained in Los Angeles that they had been denied tax-supported court interpreters, the Federal government began investigating California’s courts. When other states were also examined, they were also faulted for not offering interpreters. Failure to comply meant possibly losing federal funds. 

Thereafter, California and the other states soon began working to be in compliance with civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin. California, because of the diversity of languages spoken by its residents, was presented with a significant challenge. In California, approximately 44 percent of its residents speak a language other than English at home: 7 million Californians claim that they do not speak English well. Currently, there are about  220 languages are spoken in California. In addition, the court system in California is the largest in the country, surpassing the federal system in size. The state’s courts handle as many as 8 million cases per year.

Just two years into its court-ordered enforcement phase, the “language access plan” in California is requiring courts to provide interpreters for all non-English speakers in all cases. As of the end of 2016, 47 of 58 county courts offered interpreters in high-priority civil disputes, including cases that involve: protective orders, child custody and other family law matters, evictions, guardianship and conservatorship, and elder abuse. These interpreters are provided at no charge to the litigants.

In a report by Los Angeles Times, 1st District Court of Appeal Justice Terence L. Bruiniers admitted that the state will never have enough qualified interpreters for every courtroom. While California had already provided interpreters for criminal and juvenile cases, the is now required to offer them in civil cases. Formerly, non-English-speaking litigants had to fend for themselves when fighting evictions, for example, to resolve child custody disputes

While courtrooms remain closed and judges’ positions remain vacant, due to budget cutbacks, the Democrat-controlled state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown  (D) have funded the language program at the level of $7 million during the past fiscal year.

Currently, there is a shortage of interpreters. They are needed for the following languages: American Sign Language, Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, and Tagalog. Cambodian/Khmer, Japanese, Malayalam, Hmong, Lao, dialects of the Aleutian Islands, Mixtec, Telugu, Wu, Hakka, Xiang, Kannada, Tarasco, Uzbek, Maithili, Oromo, Cebuano, Bhojpuri, Pashto, Igbo, and other languages not spoken with any frequency inside the U.S.  

While California has about 2,000 qualified court interpreters, there are too few to handle the caseload. Certification is difficult: approximately 10 percent pass the state examination. They pay is good: as much as $77,000 a year. Interpreters must have proficiency, not only in everyday use of the language in question, but also legal jargon and expert evidence. Courts occasionally have to bring interpreters in from out of state. 



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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