The first meeting of the Advisory Committee for Non-English Speakers in Virginia Courts demonstrated that the committee will have no shortage of issues to address.
The Virginia Judicial Council approved the creation of the committee in June to update the guidelines on the subject, which were adopted in November 2003, and to identify problems and solutions to them.
Cyril W. Miller Jr., director of judicial planning for the Supreme Court of Virginia, told the committee last week that the judicial system has little solid information about how interpreters are used, other than what it can deduce from the vouchers submitted for payment.
Those numbers are going up—from $1.5 million and 21,060 served in the 2000 fiscal year to $3.6 million and 59,536 served in FY 2006.
The large majority of those served speak Spanish, with 51,935 Spanish speakers served from November 2005 through October 2006. The only other nationalities in four figures were Koreans with 1,638 and Vietnamese with 1,073.
Those numbers and the discussion last week indicate that the problem is quality of interpretation for Spanish defendants, while availability is the bigger concern for nationalities for whom few translators are available.
The court system uses a telephone interpretation service that purports to provide interpreters in more than 120 languages in such cases, but Miller said it appears that judges often draft family members or acquaintances—even bystanders—to move cases along. The system has no reliable information on just how often that might happen because no voucher is generated, Miller added.
The committee hopes that it will get a more complete picture of how interpreters are used from a survey on the subject of state judges that was developed by the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. Miller said the Office of the Executive Secretary will modify and distribute the survey.
Several members of the committee are involved with Spanish-speaking defendants, as interpreters or as attorneys.
Paul F. Fantl, a Richmond attorney who is fluent in Spanish and estimates that more than 80 percent of his clients speak the language, said, “The difference between a certified and a non-certified interpreter is incredible.” That is especially important because many of his clients have little formal education or understanding of the judicial process, Fantl said.
Spanish is the only language for which the state has a certification process for interpreters.
Certified interpreters are paid $60 per hour, compared to $40 per hour for non-certified interpreters, with a two-hour minimum.
The guidelines call on judges to use the certified interpreters when they are available, but in some localities, judges use uncertified interpreters who go to court with the expectation that judges will appoint them as a matter of convenience rather than through competition or a systematic plan to rotate the work among those qualified and interested in interpreting, whether certified or not.
And one committee member said the mindset of some judges is that using non-certified interpreters saves the state money.
Fantl said Richmond Circuit Judge Richard D. Taylor Jr., also a member of the advisory committee, is the only judge he knows who insists on using a certified interpreter.
Patricia Michelsen-King, a lawyer and interpreter, said courts are using interpreters who didn’t come close to passing the certification test.
Because the certification is rigorous and time-consuming, she suggested a registry of interpreters, as is used in some states, which requires that the interpreters at least get an orientation on ethics and courtroom protocol before they can act as interpreters.
“This is going to cost the courts money, but we have to get people who know what they’re doing,” Michelsen-King said.
Miller said some courts contract with agencies who promise to find and send interpreters to court, but some of them are using unqualified people. “We need to do a better job of letting judges know who the companies are and what their capabilities are,” he said.
Miller said the plan is for the committee to meet twice a year, in November and May, and make reports to the June and December meetings of the Judicial Council.
Between meetings, subcommittees will be asked to take on such tasks as review of portions of the guidelines, he said.