SD20 - Foreign Language Interpreters in Virginia's Courts

Executive Summary:
As the Commission on the Future of Virginia's Judicial System forecasted in 1989, the increasing diversity of Virginia's population is having and will continue to have an impact upon the operation of Virginia's justice system, and in particular, the trial courts. This was evidenced most recently in the passage of Senate Joint Resolution No. 93 during the 1994 General Assembly session. The resolution was introduced as a result of concerns raised by the Joint Legislative Subcommittee Studying Foreign-Born Individuals in the Commonwealth. The resolution requested that the Judicial Council of Virginia evaluate several policy issues relating to the use of foreign language interpreters in judicial proceedings in the Commonwealth. Specifically, SJR No. 93 asked the Council to evaluate:

(1) the need for foreign language interpreters in civil matters;

(2) the training and certification requirements of interpreters;

(3) courtroom training for interpreters, judges, personnel of clerks' offices and attorneys;

(4) legal issues which may arise from the use of interpreters; and

(5) the fiscal impact of such a program.

The rationale for requesting a study of the need for language interpreters in civil cases was premised, in part, on the conclusion that civil litigation, such as in housing and domestic relations cases, can involve a loss of rights as injurious as criminal penalties. The resolution further noted that a disproportionate share of foreign-born individuals settle in some areas of the Commonwealth, especially Northern Virginia and, therefore, have a correspondingly disproportionate impact on the legal system. Finally, the measure pointed to potential alternatives in the current funding and payment system for court interpreters that may create opportunities to expand coverage to civil cases. A copy of the resolution is included on page A-2 of the Appendix to this report.

Following the enactment of the resolution, a two-phase research design was developed. The first phase included a nationwide review and analysis of: (1) statutes regarding the use of court interpreters for linguistic minorities in civil cases at public expense; (2) the qualifications set forth either by statute or administrative policy for those who serve the courts as foreign language interpreters either in civil or criminal cases; (3) the types of and means by which training is provided both to judges and court staff; and (4) methods used in other states for payment of interpreters. This report presents the results of the first phase of the project.

The General Assembly appropriated $50,000 to conduct this study. These funds have been reserved for the second phase of the project due to the potential costs involved in pursuing development of a statewide court interpreter certification and training program, should the General Assembly decide, based upon the Council's evaluation and their further discussions, to develop such requirements for court interpreters. If so, the Council will begin the second phase of the project to address the qualitative aspects involved in the provision of foreign language interpreters. Activities in the second phase would include establishment of a statewide interpreter testing and certification program, the designation of languages for which there should be certification programs, the establishment of standards of practice and professional conduct for interpreters. and an examination of the legal issues which may arise in using interpreters.

The Judicial Council referred the study of foreign language interpreters to the Judicial Administration Committee, a standing committee of the Council. This report represents the work of that Committee. Following completion of the study, the Council received the report and voted to transmit it to the Governor and members of the 1995 General Assembly, in particular to members of the Joint Subcommittee Studying the Needs of Foreign-Born Individuals in the Commonwealth.