Do courts provide interpreters for non-English speakers?

At all critical stages of a case, a judge will appoint an interpreter to translate for defendants (and often victims as well) who have substantial difficulty speaking and understanding English. The law that applies in federal court is commonly called the Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1827. States with such laws include Virginia (Va. Code Ann. § 19.2), Florida (Fla. Stat.Ann. §§ 90.606), and California (Constitution, Art 1, § 14). Under state law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, hearing-impaired people may obtain sign language interpreters.

Even if they have some ability to speak and understand English, defendants may need the help of an interpreter to fully understand what’s happening in court. At the same time, their need for an interpreter may not be fully apparent to judges or even their own lawyers. Thus, defendants who need an interpreter may have to tell their lawyers or the judge.

Defendants who have interpreters should communicate through them at all times. For example, even if Jim thinks that he understands a question without waiting for it to be translated and can answer it in English, he should listen to the translation before answering and should answer in his primary language.

The presence of an interpreter in no way changes the confidentiality of attorney-client communications.

Example: Su has been charged with shoplifting for trying to steal an expensive dress. Her first language is Mandarin and her knowledge of English is quite limited. When in court, Su should ask for assistance from an interpreter. Even if her lawyer speaks Mandarin fluently, the lawyer cannot effectively participate in courtroom proceedings while simultaneously translating. (If Su knows someone who can interpret for her, she can ask the judge to appoint that person.) If Su speaks to her lawyer through the interpreter, both the lawyer and the interpreter have a duty not to reveal the conversation to anyone without Su’s permission.

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