The Times Picayune: Courts struggle to break language barriers in Louisiana

October 20, 2017 – Maria Clark

The judicial system in Louisiana is still struggling to meet requirements to provide interpreters for people who do not speak English, especially in rural areas and in certain municipal courts – even though interpreting services are required by law.

However, a state program developed by the Supreme Court is trying to close the language gap to supply courts with professionally trained and certified language interpreters.

Under federal law, all courts are required to provide language assistance to people who do not speak English in civil and criminal proceedings and for court programs and services, according to the Department of Justice.

However, in some cases, litigants and their lawyers must make the effort to find their own interpreters and often the client must pay the cost. The state also does not require interpreters to be certified by the court system.

Attorneys with Catholic Charities’ immigration and refugee services in New Orleans explained that they sometimes have to plan ahead depending on the court and coordinate with one of their staff interpreters.

“It creates a logistical problem for us,” said managing attorney Homero Lopez.

The organization has to keep track of the municipal courts that require clients to bring their own interpreters and courts that offer the service without additional costs.

“In some cases, the family will have to cover the cost of the service,” said Julie Ward, the director of immigration and refugee services with Catholic Charities. “We are lucky for now to have the funds and trained staff to help in those cases.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Louisiana recognized that the lack of qualified interpreters in state courts was creating an unbalanced system for residents who weren’t English proficient. That year the state developed their interpreter training program for the courts.

The program “was created to service people with limited knowledge of English in Louisiana’s judicial system, by improving the quality of interpreting services,” said Robert Gunn, spokesman for the state Supreme Court.

The program has a two-tiered system of qualification. Interpreters must complete a written and oral exam to earn their certification. The vast majority are unable to complete the oral exam successfully. 

There are only 15 certified interpreters from the program and 144 “registered” interpreters, those who were only able to complete the written exam, in Louisiana. They are fluent in 15 languages including Spanish, Vietnamese, Polish and German. Attorneys can access their help through a list published on the court’s website.

“All of the courts have access to the list of registered and certified interpreters,” Gunn said. “If a court cannot locate an interpreter, or if there is a need for a language not covered by the program, the courts can call the Supreme Court for assistance.”

The Louisiana Language Access Coalition, headed by Daesy Behrhost and Karla Sikaffy Du Plantier, worked closely with the Supreme Court when it was developing its certification program. The LLAC focuses on improving access to public services for individuals who are not English proficient.

“The result is that there is a still a lot of work to be done,” said Behrhost. “I think that the Supreme Court hoped there would be a trickle-down effect and that municipal courts would follow the example of the state courts. But the change has stayed at the state level. Lower courts don’t always understand the necessary qualification for an interpreter or the need for language services, especially in rural jurisdictions.”

Knowledge of the language is not the only requirement for a qualified interpreter, she added.

“They can’t offer advice to the client, they aren’t attorneys. That advice could be inappropriate and have serious repercussions,” she said.

In one case in Houma, in 2014, a court interpreter working for the indigent defender’s office of Terebonne Parish was accused of attempting to extort between $2,000 to $4,000 from families by threatening to release identifying information to immigration enforcement.

“For years the courts have simply functioned on faith that people are qualified to communicate in the languages they say they are fluent in,” said Tim Tyler, assistant judicial administrator for Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court.

Even though federal law requires the courts to offer interpreters, there is no requirement on the books that they must be certified by a state court.

Jefferson Parish, where the largest growth of the Hispanic population in Louisiana has taken place over the past decade, has contracted with a certified interpreting agency. Juvenile Court decided to contract with the agency when they began to see more immigration related cases coming through the court.

“I think it is necessary for there to be some uniformity for people to receive the same level of service,” he said.

“Laws requiring certified interpreters for all courts is a step in the right direction,” he said. “But at the same time keep in mind that rural courts need to have the same level of access to these services as the higher courts.”

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