Concerned about the ability of the trial courts to meet the needs of litigants who speak little or no English, the MBA Access to Justice Section Council investigated the availability of interpreter services.
Jacquelynne J. Bowman, chair of the Section Council, interviewed Gaye Gentes, manager of the Office of Interpreter Services at the Trial Court, about services available from her office and what lawyers should know about interpreter services.
JJB: How did you come to the Office of Interpreter Services?
GG: I grew up in Mexico. I had never looked at interpreting as a serious career but ended up doing freelance interpretation in both the legal and medical fields. I accepted the position as director of interpreter services at the New England Medical Center and after five years there, I came over to the Trial Courts, where I have been for four years. I have spent more than 20 years in the field.
JJB: What services are available from your office?
GG: Under G.L. c. 221C, the commonwealth must allow those persons with limited English proficiency or non-English speakers to have access to the courts through the use of qualified interpreters. We offer interpreter services in about 70 different languages. We send interpreters to about 120 different court locations across the state, in both civil and criminal matters, including Superior, District, Juvenile Housing, Probate and Family, as well as the Land Courts. We have a staff of 32 people; 22 of them are staff interpreters and the others are administrators. We have roughly 160 contracted or per diem interpreters.
JJB: How does a litigant obtain interpreter services?
GG: We promulgated some guidelines and standards governing our services about two years ago. These standards are available online through the court Web site or from http://www.mass.gov/courts/resources.html. Just scroll down to “guidelines and standards.” Each court department and division in the commonwealth has identified two or three people to serve as the court liaison for interpreter services. Requests for services must be made through the court liaison. Once an attorney or the litigant has informed the court liaison that an interpreter is needed, an automatic request should be generated each time the case is scheduled for court.
JJB: Are there any restrictions on the kinds of cases for which interpreter services are provided?
GG: Interpreter services are generally available in all types of court proceedings, including the beginning of a case if someone needs assistance to file documents, although in some of those cases we may do a phone interpretation at a clerk’s counter in the interest of expediency. We also provide interpretation services for court investigations and interviews in care and protection proceedings, CHINS and delinquency cases. We are also available for mental health commitment hearings, grand jury proceedings and civil and criminal trials.
JJB: Are your services available to help an attorney talk to a client who does not speak English?
GG: No. Our services are available to help the person while in court or participating in some court required activity, court clinics or GAL. We are not available for attorney-client discussions or for any trial preparation work.
JJB: Is there any other work your office does not cover?
GG: In addition to attorney-client interviews, we do not do victim-witness services, translations of documents or taped interviews, probation interviews or mediations.
JJB: Sometimes a lawyer arrives at court to find that an interpreter has not been scheduled. What can we do to assure that an interpreter has been assigned?
GG: The court liaison should be able to determine if an interpreter has been scheduled. The attorney should call the court liaison a week before the hearing date to make certain that the interpreter has been scheduled. Likewise, sometimes interpreters are sent for cases that are not going forward. Attorneys should make certain that the court liaison is aware that a case has been postponed or continued to another date.
In some courts, the court liaison is notified or otherwise made aware of the continuance but it is good practice for an attorney to make certain so that we do not waste resources. If we assign a per diem interpreter, we will have to pay at least a half-day of expense for traveling to the court.
JJB: I have had to wait for interpreters to arrive even after I checked with the court liaison and was assured that an interpreter would be available. Why does this happen?
GG: In some instances we have had to prioritize cases, particularly when the language required is one in which we have a small number of interpreters. For example, we have only one Somalian interpreter. If there is a request for a trial and a request for small claims court, we prioritize the trial. We contact the court liaison and discuss whether a case can be continued or whether the person is willing to wait. Generally speaking, divorce cases, small claims, malpractice, personal injury, other civil trials and clerk-magistrate hearings are given a lower priority. This rarely happens with Spanish interpreters, because we have quite a few, both on staff and available per diem.
JJB: What languages are most in demand?
GG: Spanish is the most in demand; 70 percent of our requests are for Spanish. Portuguese is rising. Last year it was 14 percent of our encounters. We also get requests for languages that are quite rare. Attorneys or anyone else making a request for an interpreter should be as precise as possible about the language needed. It is not helpful to say “Chinese” when the language spoken may be Mandarin or Cantonese or some other dialect. This helps us to send the correct interpreter and minimize delays.
JJB: Approximately how many requests do you get in a year?
GG:In fiscal year 2001, we had 56,000 encounters. In fiscal year 2004, we had 80,000. We are generally able to meet the needs of the people requesting our services, but I also wonder how many litigants know that our services are available.
JJB: Do you have any suggestions for attorneys who represent clients using your interpreter services?
GG: The role of the interpreter is fairly rigid. Interpreters focus primarily on maintaining an accurate record for the court. They are there to interpret; they are not there to explain or give information in their own words. Attorneys should address the person directly. You should not say, “tell her….” Say what you would as if you were speaking directly to the person.
Attorneys who need to give documents to a client should explain the documents themselves rather than asking the interpreter to read them to the person. This often happens when one side is pro se. The attorney should be aware that the interpreter cannot answer questions or give legal advice. In court, interpreters will also use the register of the speaker. If the judge is speaking in “legalese,” the interpreter cannot simplify the language.
JJB: I know that the standards and procedures are available online, but what if I am having a problem with an interpreter? Where do I go to make a complaint?
GG: We have a training manager who goes out and periodically observes interpreters to make certain that they are meeting our quality standards. However, if anyone experiences a problem with any of the services available from our office, feel free to contact me.