For the almost 20 percent of Californians who are not proficient in English, navigating the legal system can be daunting. These residents, who are often immigrants, have trouble following court proceedings without significant language assistance. While state law only requires interpreter and language services for criminal cases, immigrants are on their own for civil actions and proceedings.
California Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Alhambra) introduced in February Assembly Bill 1127, legislation that would establish a task force of language experts to develop a plan to provide interpreter services in every court statewide. This Language-Access Plan is critical, especially in communities with a large Hispanic and Asian American population such as Alhambra and the Los Angeles area.
In a California Judicial Council study of language and interpreter use in state courts between 2004-2008, interpreters translated in 147 languages and almost half of these services occurred in the Los Angeles area. Spanish and Mandarin court services were the only two languages to significantly increase statewide during the five-year study, by 89 and 11 percent respectively. Interpretation needs for Asian Americans will continue to increase as the group does — it's the fastest growing population in the United States according to the Pew Research Center.
One Alhambra resident feels that a lack of language access in courts stops immigrants from fighting for their rights. "Many first-generation immigrants are small business owners in their communities. Oftentimes, they may not have the resources to hire attorneys to represent them and they are afraid to get into any civil dispute due to language barrier,” Sunni Sui said. “I have a friend who owns a mom-and-pop hair salon and spent about $5,000 on roof repair, but the contractor didn't really fix the roof. She wanted to go to civil court to get the repair money back, but couldn't do due to language. She felt very mad and helpless."
Immigrants also face a cultural barrier in many courts and law enforcement agencies. An interpreter can explain not only what is said in court or written on documents but also how American courts work. This is helpful to Chinese immigrants in particular. In China, only cases dealing with guilty parties go to court, so for many Chinese immigrants court is a dire last resort, not a place of mediation.
This cultural interpretation is just as important as language interpretation, according to court and law enforcement interpreter Lei Zhang. This service should be provided in all of California's courts. “When Chinese people find someone who can speak their language in a distressing situation, they usually want to tell you everything at once," Zhang said.
Assembly Bill 1127 was amended Tuesday in the California State Senate to include a pilot program at three courts to test the cost and procedure of a statewide Language-Access Plan. The trial would cost $6 million and be funded by money that was already allocated for interpreter services and review.
“Providing appropriate language services so that every Californian can fully understand and participate in our judicial proceedings is essential to ensuring full and fair access to justice,” said Chau in a June press release. “This bill is a step towards bringing California into compliance with federal civil rights laws and reflects the state’s concerted efforts to address language access issues in our courts.”
The bill is scheduled for a third reading, and if passed will return to the State Assembly and then sent to Governor Jerry Brown. If the governor signs the bill into law, we can start to provide Californians with an explicitly recognized right to equal access to the courts regardless of language proficiency.