California is often in the forefront of the fight to open the justice system to everyone. Therefore, it wasn’t at all surprising to see that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently wrote to the State Assembly, asserting “it is essential to provide non-English speaking litigants with interpreters in order to provide meaningful access to our justice system.” However, the rest of his message was indeed surprising: he vetoed Assembly Bill 2302, which would have required the courts to provide an interpreter in civil cases for the seven million Californians who cannot “proficiently speak or understand the English language.” [Litigants would have been expected to pay for the services, in accordance with their financial ability.]
The Bill’s Legislative Digest correctly described the plight of those appearing in court without adequate English language skills — especially those appearing pro se: “For Californians not proficient in English, the prospect of navigating the legal system is daunting, especially for the growing number of parties who do not have access to legal services and therefore have no choice but to represent themselves in court, which is a virtually impossible task for people who are unable to understand the proceedings.” Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to justify the veto by saying that California is attempting to eliminate its $5 billion dollar structural deficit and the extension of the interpreter requirement had a $10 million-dollar price tag. Nonetheless, if your English reading skills are better than your aural and oral abilities, the California court website does suggest how to ask for an interpreter (getting one is not guaranteed) and provides an e-brochure on how to best use a translator in court.
On a much more positive note, we are pleased to say that the D.C. City Council has earmarked $3.2 million for civil legal service providers working with poor and underserved District residents. In particular, we note that a portion of the funds are to be used to create “a shared legal interpreter bank for all service providers to draw on when assisting non-English-proficient clients.” (D.C. Bar News)