Court Interpreters Play an Important Role in Access to Justice

Court Interpreters Play an Important Role in Access to Justice.

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In 2016, over 250,000 court proceedings used interpreters to increase the access to justice for people with hearing impairments or limited proficiency in English. Interpretation services are particularly important in criminal cases to preserve a constitutional process that enables “defendants to understand proceedings and assist in their own defense.”[1]

Authority for courtroom interpreters comes from the federal Court Interpreters Act, 18 U.S.C. §1827,[2] adopted by Congress in 1978.[3] The Act requires the Director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts to “establish a program to facilitate the use of certified and otherwise qualified interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States.”[4] The Act further specifies that interpreters should be used when a party or a testifying witness has a hearing impairment or speaks only, or primarily, a language other than English and that barrier would hinder (1) the party’s understanding of court proceedings or communication with counsel or the judge, or (2) the witness’s comprehension of questions and the presentation of testimony.[5] The need for an interpreter can be raised on the court’s own motion or on the motion of a party in the case, including a criminal defendant.[6]

Federal courts rely on the National Court Interpreter Database to identify contract interpreters with the skills necessary for any given case. The database contains entries for more than 3,600 interpreters, representing over 180 languages. While approximately 96% of interpreter requests are for Spanish-language interpreters, more than 120 languages are used with some regularity in federal courts. When less common languages arise, interpreters must sometimes be brought in from other parts of the country; in these cases, it is particularly important to ensure that the interpreter has proficiency in the same dialect as the party or witness.[7]

Courtroom interpreters need many skills beyond proficiency in their specified language. Interpreters must develop extensive knowledge of legal terms in both English and the language in which they interpret. Additionally, during court proceedings, interpreters must be able to provide simultaneous interpreting to a party or witness when English is being spoken and consecutive interpreting to the court when the party or witness is speaking. Courtroom interpreters must also be skilled note-takers and must be willing to render translations without censorship. As Spanish is the predominant interpretation need in federal courts, the judiciary has developed a certification examination for Spanish-language interpreters. Although federal judges have discretion in appointing the specific interpreter to be used in a case, a certified Spanish-language interpreter must be used if one is reasonably available.[8]

For parties with hearing impairments or limited English proficiency, the courtroom interpreters used by federal courts provide the opportunity to more fully participate in court proceedings. The ability to understand and participate in proceedings is essential in increasing access to justice.

For more information on trials in federal courts, see O’Connor’s Federal Rules * Civil Trials.


[1] See United States Courts, Court Interpreters Deliver Justice in All Languages, Aug. 10, 2017.

[2] 18 U.S.C. §1827.

[3] See United States Courts, Court Interpreters Deliver Justice in All Languages.

[4] 18 U.S.C §1827(a).

[5] Id. §1827(d).

[6] See id. §1827(d)(1).

[7] See United States Courts, Court Interpreters Deliver Justice in All Languages.

[8] See id.

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