It’s not about being “nice.” It’s about “Equal Access to Justice.”

By Claudia E. Villalba

One can say that the State of Florida is one of the states at the forefront in the implementation of remote interpreting as a cost-effective and time-saving solution to enable the state courts to provide necessary court interpreting services. An initiative taken after recently receiving clarification of federal guidelines from the Department of Justice that directs courts to provide court interpreting services for all court proceedings and court-managed activities in order to allow clearer communication between all participants in said proceedings, improve overall access to justice, effectiveness and efficiency in the trial courts.

Recent clarification? How long has this premise been around? Let’s travel back into history…

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against “any person in this country on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Let’s remember Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 568 (1974), national origin and language are inextricably intertwined. Discrimination or exclusion therefore amount to discrimination based on national origin. It also prohibits that any such person be excluded “from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Since these provisions have been construed to include U.S. and the State courts that receive federal funds, they are required to provide interpreters with essential language and interpreting skills, as per federal law, to Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals in civil and criminal cases, at no charge for defendants.

The Court Interpreters Act of 1978, signed in October of the same year by President Carter, establishes the right for any individual involved in a court proceeding to have a certified or otherwise qualified court interpreter if his/her communication or comprehension capabilities are inhibited because of a language barrier, or a hearing or speech impairment.

August 2000, President Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 requires that federal agencies take “reasonable steps to provide meaningful access for LEP people to federally-conducted programs and activities.” It also requires that “every federal agency that provides financial assistance to non-federal entities publish guidance on how those recipients can provide meaningful access to LEP persons.” Ten years later, the Attorney General stressed the importance of complying with this executive order to turn policy into reality. And that takes us into 2010.

It is now June 2014 and the situation is still appalling. The Rules for Certification and Regulation of Court Interpreters were finally adopted in 2006 after the infamous case of the State of Florida vs. Juan Ramon Alfonzo (case number 2004-34473 out of Volusia County, 7th Judicial Circuit) in which the defendant was linguistically absent during his own plea hearing due to the flawed interpretation of an uncertified, unqualified court interpreter. According to an expert’s evaluation, said interpreter was “not minimally adequate to interpret in a court of law”, which exposed the need for the certification and regulation process of the interpreting profession.

It has been eight (8) years since Certification and yet, Florida State Courts continue to provide interpreting services for “due process” cases only (specifically: criminal, juvenile dependency, delinquency, child support cases- only those in which the petitioner receives some form of government assistance (e.g. Medicaid, food stamps), domestic violence injunctions, some mental health hearings- in case of involuntary commitment, and some probate matters- involving an individual’s guardianship). State employees and contract interpreters are to limit their services to “due process cases” only and nothing else. Any other service provided “out of niceness” is to be avoided in order to avoid creating “an expectation” of said services, and that is a “dangerous thing”. Someone needs to respectfully remind administrators and managers that court interpreting services are not provided out of “niceness” but as a matter of EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE.

Day after day one sees and hears the plight of LEP individuals undergoing evictions, foreclosures, dissolutions of marriages, custody and visitation battles, just to name a few, without court interpreters. Relatives and friends are still allowed to “interpret” in those cases, creating a double-standard, since uncertified interpreters or bilingual individuals can be used in these cases. It also creates a sense of hopelessness and frustration for professional interpreters. Attorneys have been witnessed utilizing minor children to interpret complicated civil law concepts to their parents. Juvenile delinquents have been asked to interpret for their parents, who occasionally happen to be the victims, in related proceedings outside the courtroom in events that will determine the child’s own adjudication in a subsequent hearing before the judge. Litigants appear before judges and magistrates but they are linguistically absent and wrapped up in a babble of voices. Professional interpreters have also encountered situations in which LEP individuals are not afforded the benefit of diversion programs, recipients of partial federal funding, because they don’t speak English. If they are offered the program, they are discouraged from asking for the services of an interpreter.

In view of such miscarriages of justice, professional interpreters are up in arms asking when things are going to change. The answer is always the same: there is no funding. There is no hope in sight in the Sunshine State for equal access to the courts, to the courts services or to justice. What is really sad, my dear colleagues, is that Florida is not alone.

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