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The right to equal language access in our state courts


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.

A court sign in Spanish | Photo by lewisha1990 from Flickr

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.

A Chinese courthouse in Shaanxi | Photo by MinnesotaSon from Flickr

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.

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3 thoughts on “The right to equal language access in our state courts”

  1. “An interpreter can explain not only what is said in court or written on documents but also how American courts work.”

    This is against the interpreter code of ethics. A certified court interpreter is not there to “explain how American courts work.”

    Court interpreters do not “explain” what is being said. They interpret what is said from one language to another. Period. We are not (I’ve worked as a court interpreter for over 30 years) advocates for either side. We are language facilitators.

    Many native English-speaking Americans don’t understand how the American courts work either and are not afforded “cultural” interpreters. Most English speakers also have a difficult time following court proceedings.

    1. Glad you pointed this out Gregg. This really boils down to individual responsibility and this bill does nothing but strip it away.

  2. Why must the state and taxpayers be burdened by these 20%? What happened to the individual’s responsibility to understand the language of their own country’s legal system. Isn’t there a thing called “learning” or “studying” the English language? For the lady who lost money on the roof repair, didn’t she have no friends or familty to help assist her what-so-ever? Yeah, people who can’t understand English need help, but why is the government automatically stuck with the responsibility? What happened to individual RESPONSIBILITY, family, and friends? Providing interpreter services IN EVERY COURT STATEWIDE is a path down the wrong direction…

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