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More Languages Needed in California Courts

New America Media, News Report, Ekaterina Basilaia Posted: Jul 18, 2008

Editors Note: With Californias rapidly changing demographics, ethnic and racial diversity have become a necessity in the state's judicial system. More languages need to be spoken in court, reports NAM contributor Ekaterina Basilaia.

SAN FRANCISCO Koy Saephan began working as a court interpreter to gain insight into the legal system before pursuing law school. For the past eight years she has worked as a certified Mien language interpreter in California courts.

Although Saephan is based in Sacramento, she often travels throughout the state to work in other counties because there are so few certified Mien language court interpreters.

Helping someone understand what is being said is so important, Saephan says. I welcome the assignments that come my way because I understand how essential my skills are.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George agrees that more languages need to be spoken by California court interpreters. At a press conference he held with local ethnic media July 10, George stressed that diversity is badly needed in Californias judicial system. With growing numbers of Californians coming to the courts who are not conversant in English, unfamiliar with the American system of justice, or unable to afford the counseling, it has become increasingly apparent that our court system must reach out," he said.

For English and non-English speaking people who come to resolve their disputes, court proceedings can seem strange, even intimidating. Child custody, civil rights and landlord-tenant disputes, along with other types of legal issues need complete involvement in and understanding of the justice system to get the best results.

In law, language and exactitude are very important: The difference of a single word can make difference if the claim is to be successful," George said. "Access to justice is meaningless if you do not understand the proceeding in which youre involved.

According to studies conducted by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), approximately 40 percent of Californias population speaks a language other than English in the home. About 20 percent of Californians say they do not speak English very well.

Justice George pointed out that these figures are constantly increasing, which in turn raises the demand for court interpreters.

Currently, court interpreters can be certified in 13 languages: Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and American Sign Language.

Aspiring interpreters must pass the Court Interpreter Certification Examination and register with the Judicial Council. Once registered, interpreters do not need to pass any state certifying examination; only the oral and written English proficiency examination is required.

Along with the interpreters' program, a self-help Web site has been designed for individuals who are forced to navigate the legal system without the benefit of a lawyer. Litigants unable to afford counsel in criminal cases are provided with lawyers by the state, as guaranteed by the Constitution. However, there is no such requirement for litigants in civil cases.

Information on how to proceed on various legal issues is offered to those who cant afford counsel. Contents of the Web site are translated into Spanish and many sections are available in Chinese and Vietnamese.

California courts are planning to launch a program that would provide litigants in civil matters with legal counsel as well, even though it is not required by the Constitution. If it succeeds, George says, California will be the first state in the United States to have such a program.

To learn more about becoming a court interpreter, visit www.courtinfo.ca.gov/interpreters.

Related Articles:

Court Interpreter Strike Causes Chaos in L.A.

Scarcity of Indigenous Interpreters in U.S. Courts

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