Working with an Interpreter in Legal Settings

legal asl interpreters arizona resized 600Over the past couple of decades there has been an ever-growing need for interpreters in the legal industry. Chances are that if you are an attorney, you have encountered, or will encounter, the need for an interpreter at some point during the course of your practice. Below are some pointers that should help to promote a better outcome in an interpreted legal procedure.

People in this country who are Limited English Proficient (LEP) face great difficulties in their everyday communications; this challenge is especially magnified when they encounter the judicial system.  As a matter of due process, court interpreters are used to facilitate communication among LEP individuals, their attorneys and the courts to ensure that every litigant receives a fair hearing.

When working with an interpreter, a legal professional should first understand the interpreter’s role in order to effectively, thoroughly and ethically conduct the proceeding.  A court interpreter serves as a linguistic conduit among all the parties involved, allowing the LEP person to participate fully.  A legal interpreter is a trained and certified professional, whose role is to accurately convey testimony, without any embellishment, omission, adaptation, bias, judgment or emotional involvement.  In court and in depositions, interpreters must take an oath to accurately interpret all that is said during the proceedings.

For law professionals new to working with court interpreters, here are some tips and best practices to promote better communication:

  1. Advise everyone in the court of the interpreter’s role.
  2. Allow the interpreter to converse with the LEP individual beforehand, so that the interpreter can become familiar with the individual’s speaking style, and also so that the individual can be assured of the interpreter’s capabilities.
  3. Allow the interpreter to have access to prep documents in advance so they are well versed in any special terminology for the case.
  4. Consider in advance seating arrangements and other environmental factors which affect the interpreter’s ability to see and hear all participants, and everyone else’s ability to hear the interpreter.
  5. During the proceedings, speak directly to the party or witness, not the interpreter.
  6. Speak clearly and maintain a consistent register.
  7. Avoid using obscure references and slang to prevent misunderstandings.
  8. Refrain from using double negatives.
  9. Remember, the interpreter will render all language, including asides and objections.
  10. Allow time for the interpreter to finish a sentence before speaking during consecutive interrogatory.
  11. Allow for breaks – interpreting is intense, demanding work! With appropriate rest breaks, your interpreter will perform at his or her best throughout the proceedings.

If legal counsel doesn’t speak the foreign language of his/her client, how does an attorney know if an interpreter is really up to the task? The best way to evaluate an interpreter’s qualifications is to determine whether he or she is certified by the state courts.  The Consortium for Language in the Courts  developed an interpreter certification program to promote equal access to justice by helping to eliminate language barriers in the court system.   The consortium established requirements, testing and standards along with a code of ethics and principles for confidentiality as part of the process for certifying legal interpreters. Interpreters before a judge may be subject to Voir Dire (French for “To See, To Speak”). This is a preliminary questioning procedure conducted to determine the suitability and qualifications of an interpreter before the beginning of a hearing or procedure. Here are a few samples of Voir Dire questions:

  • What training or credentials do you have as an interpreter?
  • What is your native language?
  • How did you acquire your foreign language skills?
  • Are you familiar with the Interpreter’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility?
  • How many times have you interpreted in court?
  • Describe your familiarity with legal terminology
  • What types of cases have you interpreted?
  • Are you related to or close with anyone in this case?
  • Do you understand your role as a neutral party, to facilitate communication, not offer advice or opinion into these proceedings?

So, who ultimately pays for court interpreter services? Title VI National Origin Discrimination and Due Process of Law dictates that interpreters appointed to assist an LEP individual during judicial proceedings are to be compensated from special appropriations available to the judiciary.  However, if a defense counsel needs interpretation or translation services outside of the courtroom, it is their responsibility to contact and pay for a Language Services Provider.

In legal procedure, lives and property depend on the use of words. It is always advisable to work with a professional, certified, legal interpreter for any type of legal proceeding in which an LEP individual is involved. It should be noted that not all states have certification programs and not all languages have certification exams available. In such cases, other qualifying criteria should be applied in order to ensure that the LEP client is receiving the appropriate language support.


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