2003 Finalist
National Center for State Courts
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

Law enforcement officials, lawyers, and judges across the country have enough trouble getting their jobs done without communication barriers making things worse. Many U.S. citizens do not understand English well enough to follow legal proceedings. State courts typically provide interpreters to help non-English speakers understand what is happening at trial, but until the mid-1990s there was no formal process for testing the interpreters' ability. Quality was variable, leading to many misunderstandings.

In many states, when official interpreters were not available, judges would seek volunteers who happened to be present in the court to serve as interpreters rather than reschedule the hearing for another day. Even if court interpreters were able to serve on a case, they frequently gave extraneous advice about legal matters that neither the client's lawyers nor presiding judges knew was being dispensed. Others were not completely proficient in the language they claimed to interpret. As a result, non-English speakers often did not even understand the charges against them, let alone what they needed to do to participate properly in the trial.

In 1995, representatives from Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, and Minnesota were approached the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) with a plan to pool resources to develop training and testing standards for court interpreters. The Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification started as a voluntary program for these four states, but quickly expanded due to high demand. Now, the program serves a total of 29 states, states that between them harbor 76 percent of U.S. residents that do not speak English in their homes.

Under the program's guidelines, all state court interpreters should be trained, and rigorously tested to ensure that they can provide adequate services. The Consortium has developed standards for professional responsibility, developing, administering, and rating oral examinations in eleven languages, determining when discipline is warranted, and conducting orientation workshops for interpreters.

Other government agencies have turned to the testing procedures pioneered by the Consortium in order to ensure that non-English speakers have access to other services; the Department of Justice requires the provision of qualified interpreters in all programs receiving federal financial assistance.

The Consortium has helped to improve non-English speakers' practical access to the justice system, providing an instructive model for future cooperation between state courts.