The Couch

The Couch: Can You Do This One Thing For Me Real Quick?

The Couch is a place to exchange ideas and brainstorm, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. Sometimes, even when everyone in the room has the best of intentions, role boundaries can get muddied, and then everyone suffers. A special thank you to this week’s contributor for the Couch idea.


In the state where I work, all court-interpreting assignments are issued and managed by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). That means that they issue administrative procedures and other guidelines that govern the conduct and practice of court interpreting throughout the state in courts of all levels.

One common problem is that after an interpreter has been contracted to provide services and is there in the courthouse waiting, she may often be approached by a public defender or other private attorney and asked to help “real quick” with the attorney’s client. The AOC recently issued a policy reminder that this is forbidden under most circumstances. The rationale is that if an interpreter is contracted by the AOC for the courts’ business, a private or defense attorney needs to hire their own interpreter to assist with any case preparation or other attorney-client interactions. The exception to this would be administrative tasks: for example, reading plea agreements or DUI forms, or other things of that nature that don’t involve communicating or discussing in-depth details of the case or the attorney’s legal strategy for handling the case.

With that background, I was once asked by a public defender and authorized by the judge to accompany her to a holding area to sight translate a plea agreement for a defendant in custody. So far so good.

Once we were in the holdover area and the attorney had reviewed the details of the plea agreement, the defendant vehemently refused to accept the terms. He went on to vociferously complain about the ineffectiveness of his legal counsel, the unjust nature of the U.S. legal system, and how his prior and heretofore undisclosed history of mental illness should be a mitigating factor in his case.

For the next hour, I was trapped in a holdover with the attorney going over all of this new information with her client in an effort to prepare a defense or renegotiate the plea agreement.

Understanding what the policy is regarding the use of AOC-contracted interpreters by PDs in case preparation and having in mind the circumstances in which I suddenly found myself, if it had been you in my place, what would you have done?


Please note: If you have a topic you’d like to see discussed at The Couch, write to the Editor. The comments section here should be used only to reply to the issue under discussion today. When you submit a question or topic for The Couch, we will make sure to remove all information that might make the parties or case identifiable.

Body picture by Marcie Casas from flickr

7 thoughts on “The Couch: Can You Do This One Thing For Me Real Quick?”

  1. As Nancy Reagan so eloquently put it with regard to the use of drugs, “Just say no.”

  2. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    I don’t know. Here in California, if you are hired by the court system and not by a private attorney for a civil law or family law matter, you would do whatever interpretation would be required or helpful in the Court. If you were hired by a private attorney for civil or family law you would usually only interpret for the parties hiring you– unless you were trying to be helpful. Public defenders are hired by the court system and are NOT private attorneys. Some private attorneys also have criminal cases. Some courts provide interpreting services for family law and some limited civil You would do whatever the court staff requested you to do has been my experience. You would generally interpret for any criminal, family law and civil for which the court staff needed you to interpret.

  3. Vinka Valdivia says:

    I would have reminded the PD that we had gone far beyond sight translating the document in question and that, at this point, it was necessary for him to hire a private interpreter because this interview was beyond the scope of what is permitted by the AOC.

    1. Linda Ross says:

      This sounds like a very reasonable response to me, particularly as the AOC has documented guidance for working with interpreters who are hired by the court.

  4. Heidi Cazes says:

    I work in federal court. Here we are paid either half day or full day, and it is the AO that is in charge of paying. Usually, when the court contracts me for a hearing, they might also ask me to arrive earlier to interpret for the defense attorney and the client, either before or after the hearing (or both). So I will invoice the court for half a day if the total time was less than 4 hours, and for a full day if it was more than 4 hours.
    If it is for the same case, I invoice the court directly, and do not invoice the defense attorney.

    Sometimes another attorney will ask me to interpret for them (let’s say they saw me in lockdown and they need an interpreter). There can be no “double dipping”, and our contract with the court clearly states that. So if it is a different case and we go beyond the four hours, I was told to invoice the defense attorney for the difference left over up to full day (full day is less than two half days). I also do that if I work in the afternoon for another federal court (now that we are also working remote)

    Of course, you can alwasys say you are not available. (I realized that that is what usually happens. Why would I take another hearing or a case in the afternoon or after I already interpreted for the hearing I was programmed for and am already being paid for, when I can just go back home or do something else?)

    in your case, where you were told it was just something fast, and ended not being so (which may happen), I would invoice the court for my time and just mark that you stayed X minutes/hours with attorney.

  5. Much like Heidi’s case I am hired in California often to work for courts, and sell these courts either a full or half day’s worth of my time. That said, it’s vital to remember who’s paying you, and what the paying party’s priorities and preferences are. In California, county courts will generally ask an interpreter to cover specific priority hearings first ( ones involving lots of moving human parts like trials for arraignments which require prisoners to be transported, etc). Conversely, these courts often prioritize other situations last, or may not pay you to interpret for such situations at all. As an example of the latter, a few years ago the Judicial Council (which determines how courts work and issues certification to, but does not directly hire interpreters) stated a novel policy requiring all civil cases to provide a county-funded interpreter. In reality, there are still courts in California which will be very unhappy with interpreters who observe this ‘civil rollout’ in practice, especially when higher priority cases are left waiting for an interpreter.. Others, on the other hand, are all to happy to have use the healthy budget surplus of recent years to constantly see their departments staffed flush with interpreters.

    The key situation you brought up here is usually that cases involving several important people need interpreters and are held in a waiting pattern while the interpreter goes over a case with one lawyer and one client. Aside from the sensitive issue of interpreters becoming privy to legal strategy, (often covered by our codes of ethics, but also still a sensitive issue), I’ve personally found it very useful to understand the priorities of each court I’m working with, and to understand them in detail. When caught in a grey area, I always immediately asked the hiring entity (in my case, the county interpreter coordinator, in yours the AOC) for clarification.

    For example, one morning while between cases (I had covered all of my courtrooms and knew that all other interpreters in the building had done the same, a lawyer approached me and asked if I could interpret for a civil case, and immediately offered to pay me for the assignment.

    I told him I would check with the County (interpreter coordinator) and let him know whether I could, and whether he would need to charge me at all.

    It turned out that in that county, and in that situation, the county was happy to have me interpret for him, so long as my higher priority cases were covered.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Linda Ross says:

    I think that the issue is not simply about time, or agreements with the court about time, it is about interpreter neutrality. If I am hired by the court and then do attorney/client work, I am no longer a neutral officer of the court. Unfortunately, we have not educated the courts or attorneys adequately yet to recognize this.

    That said, I, too, work in a court system where we are often asked to do both proceedings interpreting and attorney/client interpreting on a single case. Changing the system takes considerable time so I generally go with what the current “standard” seems to be particularly if it is a simple case (by that I mean the opposing party is not contesting loudly) in the moment but I educate otherwise.

    As a sign language interpreter, some of this is a bit easier because we are not standing beside the party during the proceedings so to provide services both to the court and to the attorney/client at the same time disrupts the hearing or trial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.