With over 200 languages and dialects spoken in California, court interpreters are essential to breaking down the language barriers that inhibit many Californians from accessing our courts. According to the statewide Language Access Plan Report adopted by the Judicial Council of California in 2015, approximately 40% of Californians speak a language that isn’t English at home, and approximately 20% have English language limitations. Given this significant need, the high demand for court interpreters in California family law departments comes as no surprise. But requesting and working with court interpreters in family law proceedings can be tricky, especially if you’re not familiar with local practices, the interpreter’s role in the proceedings, or the challenges facing language access in California courts.
The following checklist is designed to help avoid some common mistakes and pitfalls in requesting and working with court interpreters in family law proceedings.
___Check for local forms. Some counties require that a party complete and file an interpreter request form in advance of the hearing. These requests are made on local forms particular to the county in which the matter is heard. For example, family law litigants requesting a court interpreter in Alameda County are required to complete and file local form ALA-INT-001 prior to their hearing. However, in other counties, like San Francisco County, family law litigants are allowed to request interpreter services via email or from the Clerk’s office.
___Note any special instructions on your request form. For instance, if your client requires an interpreter who speaks a particular dialect, you’ll want to write this into your request; some interpreters are more difficult to secure than others, and this may cause lengthy delays. Likewise, if you anticipate needing interpreter services for a long cause hearing that’s expected to last one or more days, be sure to note this in your request and follow up with the courtroom clerk to ensure that the appropriate number of interpreters have been scheduled. Indeed, proceedings can be delayed when interpreter services are required for more than half a day.
___Anticipate hiccups and plan for delays. Local forms often come with the disclaimer that courts are not always able to provide interpreter services in every language. Additionally, the court may give priority for interpretation services in certain types of cases (e.g., domestic violence cases or family law cases that present a domestic violence issue). Accordingly, it’s important to anticipate hiccups and mitigate delays by filing any request for interpreter services well in advance of the first hearing (and every subsequent hearing, if required), and counsel your client appropriately about the possibility of needing to secure an interpreter that has not been court-appointed. (See Evid. Code, § 756 for the types of cases that take highest priority.)
___Introduce yourself. Once you’ve secured a court interpreter for your matter, be sure to introduce yourself to them. This is a critical step that practitioners tend to overlook, not realizing that many courts work with a limited number of interpreters who are skilled in the county’s most commonly spoken languages. As a result, you’ll almost certainly work with the same court interpreters over and over again. Making a friendly introduction will not only help break the ice, but will also give you the opportunity to learn more about the interpreter’s style, the matters they typically handle, and any local courthouse practices.
___Slow down! Lawyers are notorious for speaking at lightning speed, especially during court hearings when most of us are running on adrenaline and trying to squeeze every detail into the record. But working with a court interpreter requires counsel (and their client) to pace their speech better than they normally would. Indeed, court interpreters are managing multiple communications simultaneously during a hearing, and slowing down will decrease the likelihood of requests for clarification or repeats. It will also make for a cleaner record.
___Communicate directly with the client. Court interpreters will often assist counsel with interpretations during and following the proceeding so that counsel can effectively explain any outcomes and next steps to their client. If an interpreter is assisting you in this manner, it is imperative that you direct all communication to your client—not the interpreter. Remember: the interpreter helps facilitate the communication; they do not, and should not, communicate with the client independently. As such, counsel should always look and gesture toward the client, not the court interpreter, during the interpretation.
___Object to incorrect interpretations. If you speak the language being interpreted during the hearing, and realize there has been an error in the interpretation that prejudices your client, you should absolutely object. While objections to interpretations are uncommon, they can—and should—be made just like any other type of objection. Of course, make sure you heard the communication correctly (ask for a re-read of the record following your objection) and keep your objection matter-of-fact; interpretation is not infallible, and mistakes can happen. As with any other objection, be professional and protect your client and your record.
For more information on working with court interpreters in civil cases generally, see CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial, chapter 11.
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