3 Ways to Solve California’s Court Interpreter Shortage


California Court Interpreter Shortage | Interpreters Unlimited Blog

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“The reality is we are never going to have enough qualified interpreters in enough languages for every courtroom that needs them at the time they need them.”District Court of Appeal Justice, Terrence L. Bruiniers
With more than 220 languages spoken in California, but only 1,900 court interpreters representing a small percentage of those languages, the state continues to fall short in providing legal language services to limited English speakers. To comply with federal law, the state’s goal is to provide California court interpreters for all criminal and civil cases, as noted by District Court of Appeal Justice, Terrence L. Bruiniers in this article by the LA Times. Bruiniers also said that “the reality is we are never going to have enough qualified interpreters in enough languages for every courtroom that needs them at the time they need them.” (Dolan, 2017).

3 Ways to Solve California's Court Interpreter Shortage | Interpreters Unlimited Blog

While 1,900 interpreters is impressive,  recruiting on-site interpreters as employees is a cumbersome and costly business, and ultimately underserves speakers of less common languages such as Cambodian, Khmer, Japanese, Malayalam, Hmong, Lao, Mixteco, and other exotic languages. To combat the issue, the Judicial Council of California launched a pilot video remote interpretation (VRI) project in July to compare technology from two vendors in the Superior Courts of Merced, Sacramento and Ventura. At the end of the six-month project, the Courts, Council and vendors are to determine statewide criteria for VRI technology, based on the effectiveness of the technology and participant feedback.

According to Slator, the vendors, (Connected Justice and Paras and Associates)  both use Cisco equipment. In fact, Connected Justice is a branded Cisco platform! This leads to the question of whether the vendor selection will monopolize the market in the future.

Solution 1: Increase Competition, Increase Suppliers, Increase Coverage

Video Remote Interpretation

Increasing competition during the procurement process will increase vendor selection and increase interpreter coverage statewide.

In the past, the VRI interpreting in California was limited to court-certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. This practice limits the number of interpreters available and may increase the risk of violating the American Disability Act and the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, in the event a court-certified ASL interpreter is not available.

Suppliers, such as Stratus Video, provide nationally certified sign language interpreters and professionally qualified foreign language interpreters to perform VRI services. Companies like Stratus increase the pool of qualified interpreters available for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing population, as well as LEP persons.

Solution 2: Improve Communication Before and After Court

Telephone Interpretation

While VRI interpretation is favored over telephone interpreting services, some counties are implementing this service. It is cost-effective, secure and provides equal access to the California Courts.

In addition to using legal interpreters for civil and criminal hearings, the courts are further challenged with providing language services for various court appointed services, programs, and any pertaining legal information, from substance abuse courses to where to pay for a parking ticket.

In order to ameliorate the burden on the court system, over-the phone interpretation services can be implemented for the court’s automated messaging system. This type of telephone interpretation directs the caller (non-English speaker) to a live interpreter or recorded message (jury duty, holiday closings, etc.), effectively communicating everything they need before and after their court obligation.

California Court Interpreter Certification Process

At present, there is no standardized national accredited certification for court interpretation. States have various requirements and may only represent some languages. In California, court interpreter certification exams are only offered in American Sign Language, Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Cantonese, Farsi, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. People who are fluent in other languages may apply for the registered court interpreters test.

Under the provisional qualification in the “language access plan”, California courts can outsource legal language services to language services providers (LSP). This method can save department time, cut labor costs, reduce expenses and bring the courts in compliance with federal law.

Solution 3: Outsource to Become in Compliance

Working with an LSP is extremely beneficial because these companies already have a network of professionally trained and qualified linguists contracted to perform services for clients. As you can see below, the only difference in credentials is certification through the state.

Qualified Legal Interpreters Registered and Certified Court Interpreters
Self-employed as 1099 Independent contractors Employed by the Court
Advanced education and training in English and second language Advanced training and education in English and second language
Able to interpret complex legal jargon in real-time without distorting the meaning, context, or syntax. Able to interpret complex legal jargon in real-time without distorting the meaning, context, or syntax.
Not required to pass state certification exam Must pass California state certification test for OR pass written and oral exam and complete Judicial Council requirements.
Interprets for LEP and Deaf persons and English speakers during depositions, mediations, client intake meetings, preliminary hearings, etc. Interprets in court settings, as mandated by court system
Charges an hour fee Receives yearly salary and benefits

Many LSPs meet California’s requirements, not only under the provisional qualifications but for all legal language services. This includes written translations of signage, forms, applications, and other documents.

Moving forward, if state and county court systems considered outsourcing via a request for proposal (RFP) that includes on-site, telephone, VRI, ASL and document translation services, they could save valuable time and resources and be closer to achieving compliance with the federal government.


“This is not the kind of challenge you can simply meet in three years and then declare victory.” – Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar (Dolan, 2017)

As California’s court interpreter shortage continues to develop, the state should consider including these provisional qualifications as acceptable standards for the RFP process. As the most diverse state in the union, it is time to provide equal access for all.

About Interpreters Unlimited

Making Connections Nationwide. Interpreters Unlimited provides professional legal interpretation and document translation services in California and throughout the United States. Services are available in 200 foreign languages and American Sign Language for on-site, telephone and video remote appointments.  For more information, please call (800) 726-9891 to speak with a representative. To submit bid and RFP notifications, please contact bids@iugroup.com


California Courts. Strategic Plan for Language Access in the California Courts. [PDF] (2014). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://www.courts.ca.gov/ San Francisco, California: The Judicial Council of California.

FAQ’s – Court Interpreters. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2017, from

Young, B. (2012, December 6). Calif. Courts Face Federal Scrutiny Over Interpreter Access. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com

Dolan, M. (2017, September  5). With 220 Languages Spoken in California, Courts Face an Interpreter Shortage. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com

California Courts. (2017). Language Access Metrics Report [PDF]. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.courts.ca.gov The Judicial Council of California

Faies, F. (2017, March 23). Court Interpretation in California Goes Virtual. Slator. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.slator.com

Judicial Council of California (2017) Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) Pilot Project. [PDF]. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.courts.ca.gov/ San Francisco, California: The Judicial Council of California

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