SAN FRANCISCO — Going through a divorce has been difficult for Sepideh Saeedi. Not understanding what’s happening in court because she isn’t proficient in English has made the process even harder.
“When you don’t understand what the judge is saying, what the other side’s attorney is saying, it’s very stressful,” Saeedi, 33, who speaks Farsi, said after a recent court hearing in Redwood City, Calif.
Legal advocates say throughout the state, litigants in divorce, child custody, eviction and other civil cases who have difficulty with English are going into court without qualified interpreters. Instead, many are forced to turn to friends or family members — or worse yet, the opposing party — for translation.
That’s because California only guarantees access to an interpreter in criminal cases, not civil cases.
But the state is looking to change that. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, California’s Judicial Council this year approved a plan to extend free interpretation services to all cases by 2017.
“You can’t have a court hearing without having your client understand it correctly,” said Protima Pandey, a staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid.
Pandey said she always makes sure an interpreter is available for her clients, but many litigants in family court don’t have attorneys to do that for them.
California court officials say extending interpreter services to all cases won’t be easy.
California has the nation’s largest court system spread out over a vast geographic area with many rural counties. The state has about seven million residents with limited English proficiency who speak over 200 languages.
The courts have also faced funding cuts in recent years that have seen courthouses close and staff cut. There is no estimate yet on how much it would cost to provide interpreters in all cases, but the plan approved by the judicial council said the courts would need more than the $92 million they were spending.
“California’s judiciary is committed to language access and eager to work out the best way to get that done,” said California State Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who heads the group in charge of implementing the state’s language access goals.
Critics say the state has dragged its feet.
“Our input all along has been that they can do it sooner,” said Mary Lou Aranguren, legislative chair of the California Federation of Interpreters, a union representing court interpreters. “There’s a lot of excuses the courts have used for years.”
California was among 10 states that did not have a law, rule or guiding document requiring courts to provide interpreters in all criminal and civil cases, according to a 2014 survey by the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School. The other states in the survey: Alaska, Illinois, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont.
A 2013 letter from the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice said state law and court rules placed limits on providing free, qualified interpreters in non-criminal cases, and courts were not using all of the money in a fund used to pay for the services of interpreters.
“It’s understandable that people think the court hasn’t moved as quickly as it should have,” said Ventura County Superior Court Judge Manuel Covarrubias, vice-chair of the language access implementation task force.
He said the courts have been working on the issue but have been sidetracked by financial difficulties.
The state last year passed a law authorizing courts to provide interpreters for free in all civil cases. Where there isn’t sufficient funding, the law says courts should prioritize cases, starting with domestic violence, harassment and elder abuse civil cases.
Outside the San Mateo County courtroom where Saeedi appeared, a sign informed people that they had to bring their own interpreters. Saeedi has an attorney who she said is able to explain the proceedings to her afterward. She also relies on an online translator service available through Google to check words and phrases that come up.
San Mateo County court officials say they provide interpreters in all domestic violence family law cases, and in other family law cases, only when they can. They have had trouble finding qualified interpreters, and don’t want to hire new interpreters too quickly for fear the state funding used to pay for expanded services may dry up.
“That would be irresponsible to the employees we hire,” said John Fitton, the court’s executive officer.
Some courts have been extending the provision of interpreters. Los Angeles County, which was part of the Justice Department’s probe, has been among the most aggressive in expanding access to interpreters, legal advocates say.
In addition to domestic violence restraining orders, the court now provides interpreters to anyone who needs them in other family cases, as well as eviction, child guardianship, conservatorship, civil harassment and small claims cases.
The rollout has faced challenges. The court has found it difficult to find certified interpreters in some languages with origins in South America, said Carolyn Kuhl, the court’s presiding judge. And travel times for interpreters needed in more than one courthouse on the same day can be a challenge.
But so far, the court has been able to meet the needs, and judges are pleased, according to Kuhl.
“Not having to worry about the language skills of someone in the family or whoever else might be there to interpret is a relief to these judges,” she said.