California moves to provide interpreters in all court cases

Mariano-Florentino Cuellar is sworn in Jan. 5 as an associate justice to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Jerry Brown. California's Judicial Council this year approved a plan to extend free interpretation services to all cases by 2017. (Rich Pedroncelli ~ Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Going through a divorce has been difficult for Sepideh Saeedi. Not understanding what's happening in court because she isn't proficient in English has made the process even harder.

"When you don't understand what the judge is saying, what the other side's attorney is saying, it's very stressful," Saeedi, 33, who speaks Farsi, said after a recent court hearing in Redwood City, Calif.

Legal advocates say throughout the state, litigants in divorce, child custody, eviction and other civil cases who have difficulty with English are going into court without qualified interpreters. Instead, many are forced to turn to friends or family members -- or worse yet, the opposing party -- for translation.

That's because California guarantees access to an interpreter only in criminal cases, not civil cases.

But the state is looking to change that. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, California's Judicial Council this year approved a plan to extend free interpretation services to all cases by 2017.

"You can't have a court hearing without having your client understand it correctly," said Protima Pandey, a staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid.

Pandey said she always makes sure an interpreter is available for her clients, but many litigants in family court don't have attorneys to do that for them.

California court officials say extending interpreter services to all cases won't be easy. California has the nation's largest court system, spread out over a vast geographic area with many rural counties. The state has about 7 million residents with limited English proficiency who speak over 200 languages.

The courts have also faced funding cuts in recent years that have seen courthouses close and staff cut. There is no estimate on how much it would cost to provide interpreters in all cases, but the plan approved by the judicial council said the courts would need more than the $92 million they were spending.

"California's judiciary is committed to language access and eager to work out the best way to get that done," said California State Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who leads the group in charge of implementing the state's language-access goals.