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From the client’s lips to the court’s ear

Interpreter services in Virginia courts

A lawyer heads to court with her client, whose English language skills aren’t the best. The case has gotten more complicated and the client needs an interpreter.

If it’s a criminal client, the lawyer’s confident about getting a court-appointed interpreter.

What may be less well known, especially in parts of the state with fewer non-native English speakers, is the ready availability of interpreter services in civil cases.

A Virginia statute, Code § 8.01-384.1:1, authorizes courts to appoint interpreters in civil cases “in which a non-English speaking person is a party or witness,” with payment at public expense, “to the extent of available appropriations.”

The statute covers in-court, in-person translation services. It also covers telephonic translation, available immediately to magistrates, clerks and judges, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In recent years, the court system has contracted for “OPI,” or over-the-phone interpreter services.

Vendors serving this market include Language Line and Language Services Associates Interpretalk(R).

Since September 2009, Virginia courts have used CTS Language Link, according to Charlene Lamb, foreign services language coordinator for the Virginia Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary.

“It’s very simple, you just pick up the phone,” punch in an authorized code provided by OES, and request an interpreter, Lamb said.

Judges spoke enthusiastically about the OPI service at an Oct. 2 program in Williamsburg on Diversity and the Practice of Law, sponsored by the Virginia Women Attorneys Association.

Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne said it’s “a wonderful way” to get interpreter services quickly. “The longest it’s taken me to get an interpreter is three minutes.”

He is confident about the quality of the service, even though you have “no idea who you’re talking to.” Language Link offers 240 languages and dialects, according to its website.

Horne said he may use the OPI service for administering an oath “to someone who doesn’t understand or respect” the oath, or in criminal cases, he may use it for arraignment, a bond hearing or scheduling matter, or other non-substantive motion. He also has been known to “clear the courtroom” and let a defendant talk to his lawyer through a telephone interpreter.

“I always make a tape back-up of everything I do. It’s on the speaker phone,” he said.

“The Virginia Supreme Court pays for it, they put it in the Code, subject to funding by the General Assembly,” Horne said.

Arlington General District Judge Karen A. Henenberg, speaking from the audience at the VWAA program, said magistrates in her jurisdiction occasionally use the telephone interpreters.

Lamb can personally vouch for the value of the service to magistrates, as she served as a magistrate in the 16th Judicial District prior to joining OES. She points to two features of the current service that are especially helpful.

The Language Link service offers sight translation 24-7, with the user faxing a document to the vendor and hearing the translator read it back over the phone, allowing for “sight translation of a document at any hour.”

Also, the technology available through use of the court’s high-tech videoconferencing equipment can be used to enhance sound quality for the translation service. Sound quality is important because nuances in language use arise from different dialects and different levels of education. It’s not unheard of for a person to proffer a birth certificate that he or she cannot read, according to Lamb.

The Supreme Court of Virginia began a staff interpreter program in 2008, that provides for full-time salaried staff interpreters in selected courts, according to the current State of the Judiciary Report.

That program serves general district and juvenile courts in Alexandria, Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Harrisonburg/Rockingham, Prince William and provides satellite coordination of the lower courts in Winchester/Frederick. Staff interpreters cover circuit courts in Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun.

OES has a well-established program for certification of Spanish-language interpreters, and also has had a certified Vietnamese interpreter. Its next focus is certification for Arabic interpreters, Lamb said.

Total payments annually under the general program for interpreter services in civil cases since 2004 have ranged from $269,626 in 2004-2005, to a high of $479,042 for 2009-2010, according to figures provided by OES. Interpreters for civil and criminal cases are paid from the same criminal fund.

Lawyers who have concerns about language skills of a party or witness should not hesitate to bring it to the court’s attention, according to judges at the VWAA program. With the range of services in place, help is available.

Local practice for getting the issue in front of the judge may vary, according to Lamb. Some courts may allow a lawyer to just bring it up for discussion, others may require a formal motion.

“Please ask us to get you an interpreter,” whether it’s a civil or criminal case, Horne said.

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