The Utah Judicial Council, the governing body for the courts, recently published for public comment a rule change that represents the largest expansion of the court interpretation program in its 20-year history.
As a charter member of the National Consortium for Language Access to the Courts, a voluntary collection of state courts, Utah was a leader in the effort to provide language interpretation to people who do not understand English. The Judicial Council adopted national standards to license language interpreters, and for many years the Judicial Council has provided and partially paid for classes designed to help interpreters meet those standards.
The Utah courts appoint highly qualified interpreters on a routine basis. For the past three years, more than 95 percent of all Spanish interpretation in the courts of record was done by interpreters with the highest qualifications. Languages other than Spanish are not needed as frequently, but every year the courts appoint interpreters in about 50 languages from Albanian to Zigula, providing a significant benefit to the court at little or no cost to the person needing the interpreter.
Utah has a court interpretation program to be proud of, but it does not go far enough.
Defendants, witnesses, victims and parents who do not understand English have enjoyed professional interpretation in criminal cases, in juvenile cases and in civil cases that involve personal safety or deprivation of liberty.
The Judicial Council proposes extending this professional service to all people coming to the courts, regardless of their type of case, such as divorce, landlord-tenant, small claims, or debt collection. No matter the nature of a case, the courts will appoint an interpreter for any hearings or conferences.
Much has been made recently of the fact that the court might, in some cases, order recovery of the cost of the interpreter from the person needing the interpreter.
Cost-recovery is permitted now under state statutes but is seldom pursued because most people who need an interpreter cannot afford one. This will be no less true in civil cases than in criminal cases.
Although the authority to recover costs already exists, we expect little or no cost to the person needing the interpreter for this expanded class of cases. And all cases that currently merit free interpreter services will continue to have interpreters provided at no cost.
For two decades, the Utah courts have been taking significant steps to remove language barriers. This latest proposal represents, perhaps, the most significant step of all. Access to the courts is a civil right guaranteed by the Utah Constitution. This proposal moves the Utah courts into closer compliance with the Department of Justice's reading of federal law, but, more important, it provides greater, fairer access to justice for all Utahns.
Add an informed opinion to the debate: To read the proposed rule change, go to http://www.utcourts.gov/resources/rules/comments/ and scroll down to the link to "Rule 3-306."
To comment on the proposed rule change, click on the "comments" link below the section "Code of Judicial Administration."
Dan Becker has served as Utah state court administrator at the administrative office of the courts for the State of Utah since 1995.