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Non-English Speakers Want Their Say in Court

Much to the frustration of immigrants trying to navigate California's civil system, interpreters are provided only for certain cases.

April 03, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Maria Falcon believes she lost title to a Los Angeles house in a recent court dispute for one simple reason: She cannot speak English.

"I felt frustrated because I didn't have any assistance," said Falcon, 52, who speaks Spanish. Falcon said an English-speaking friend accompanied her to court but wasn't allowed to translate because she wasn't a court-certified interpreter. "I didn't understand anything going on in court. When the judge asked me to say something, there was nothing I could say in English."

Dorothy Herrera, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said Falcon might have retained some interest in the house if she could have presented her side. "She might have been able to negotiate something," she said.

For immigrants trying to navigate the state's civil courts, a lack of proficiency in English can jeopardize their jobs, homes and civil rights.

The state Constitution ensures that anyone charged with a crime has access to a court-appointed interpreter, but the state Supreme Court has ruled that there is no such right to an interpreter at public expense in civil proceedings. State-paid interpreters are provided only for quasi-criminal juvenile cases, small-claims cases and domestic violence cases.

"It's an enormous problem, given that effective communication is such a critical part of a judicial proceeding," said Geoffrey Robinson, chairman of the language access committee of the California Commission on Access to Justice, a group sponsored by the state bar. "It's fundamental that we provide the means to communicate, or the whole process then becomes a farce, or a mockery."

Although California lawmakers have acknowledged the need for interpreters in the civil courts, legal analysts said little has been done because of the cost and a lack of awareness about the problem.

In California, with its 11.6 million legal immigrants and estimated 2.4 million illegal immigrants, about two-fifths of the state's population speaks a language other than English in the home. More than 220 languages are spoken in California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state spends $82.7 million a year on court interpreters and has 1,316 certified in 13 languages, including American Sign Language and the two major dialects of Armenian.

Supporters of state-provided court interpreters say the number falls far short of the demand -- even in Spanish, the most widely spoken foreign tongue in California -- and that there are too few qualified linguists in some of the state's less common tongues, such as Amharic, one of the two main languages spoken in Ethiopia.

Arturo Casarez, president of the California Court Interpreters Assn., said state courts have lost professional interpreters to private agencies and the federal court system because of the pay. California court interpreters are paid $265 a day, whereas federal courts pay $355, he said.

In one incident cited in a study last year by the Commission on Access to Justice, a woman who spoke only Spanish had to rely on her child and the husband accused of abusing her to tell her side to a court clerk.

In another, a couple whose only language was Quiche -- a Central American Indian tongue -- temporarily lost custody of their 18-month-old son because they couldn't explain how the toddler suffered a head injury.

And in other instances, litigants with limited English proficiency have defaulted on their cases because they didn't understand information in documents, such as court-ordered deadlines.

The commission concluded that the lack of qualified interpreters could lead to substantial disruptions. An estimated 40 court proceedings are continued every day in L.A. County Superior Court, resulting in some 10,000 delayed proceedings each year, according to the study.

The commission recommended that the state increase funding for interpretation and translation services, guarantee access to such services, make the job more attractive by paying interpreters more and train court staff and judges to better identify and address language barriers.

Assemblyman Dave Jones, a Sacramento Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, recently introduced a bill, AB 2302, to provide interpreters in civil matters for litigants who can't afford them.

"I think it is high time we face up to the situation and make sure our goal of equal access to justice is carried out in practice," he said.

Judiciary Committee staffers said it was unclear whether new funding would be needed.

"A lot can be done with existing resources," said Kevin Baker, the committee counsel. "But additional money would certainly be useful to make language assistance available to all those who need it."

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