Ignoring court certifications is turning fashionable.

April 23, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Legal certainty is the foundation of any system of justice administration. Modern society cannot function in an environment where people are afraid to act because they ignore the outcome of their efforts. Human creativity and progress need a certainty that a set of actions will produce a desired outcome, and the peace of mind fostered by an absolute trust in an honest, capable and independent judge who will clarify what is confusing and decide what is contested according to law and equity.

All civilized nations enshrine these principles in their national constitution and create international courts of justice to address controversies that go beyond their own jurisdiction. To work, this system requires of honest, independent, capable, skilled, and knowledgeable professionals who serve as judges, attorneys and other officers of the court, including court interpreters.

No legal system can be fair when some are denied access to justice because of the language they speak, and no access to the administration of justice can be effective unless its services are provided by skilled professionals who have met rigorous standards set by the authority under the principles of equal justice uncompromised by expediency or convenience.

Every day we see how more nations adopt these principles, sometimes because of the realization of the truths above, and sometimes because the change is imposed by the unstoppable waive of globalization. Countries have changed their legal systems to incorporate these values, and as part of these changes, they have adopted legislation requiring court interpreters to be professional, ethical, skilled and knowledgeable. Some have called this process certification, others licensing, concession of patent, accreditation, etcetera.

Countries like the United States have developed a solid and reputable system of certification at both levels of government: federal and state.  Because the overwhelming majority of non-English speakers in the U.S. speak Spanish, all states and federal government have developed a certification process (licensing process in Texas) for Spanish language court interpreters. The federal government has issued federal court interpreter certifications in Navajo and Haitian Creole as well. To satisfy their local needs, states have adopted certifications for the most widely spoken languages, other than Spanish, in their jurisdiction; these certifications vary depending on the demographics of each state. Both, the federal and state judiciaries have adopted a system to classify court interpreters of languages without certification program as accredited or qualified.

Court interpreter certifications guarantee litigants and judges those officers of the court who provide interpreting services in a court procedure have demonstrated, through a rigorous scientific testing process, to have the minimum required skills, knowledge, and ethics to practice as professional certified court interpreters. Accredited and qualified court interpreters give litigants and judges an assurance that the federal or state system in charge of language access services was convinced of the skill, moral character and professionalism of these interpreters by alternate means to the certification process non-existent for that language combination.  It all boils down to the basic principle of legal certainty.

Many countries have a dual system of administration of justice: There is a judiciary as an independent branch of government that decides controversies between individuals, government entities, and in criminal cases. There is also a sui-generis administrative court system that exists not as a part of the judiciary or as an independent branch of government, but as an independent entity within the executive branch at both: federal and state levels. These administrative courts deal with civil law controversies of the administrative type where individuals dispute certain actions, benefits, entitlements, and rights that must be protected, conferred, or denied by an agency of the executive branch of government. The best known administrative courts in the United States are Immigration, Social Security and Workers’ Compensation.

Because these administrative courts are not part of the judicial branch of government, rules, policies and requirements pervasive in the judiciary do not extend to these so-called Article 1 Courts (because they are created by legislation, not the constitution) as opposed to Article 3 Courts (created by Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution). Rigorous criteria for court interpreter certification, created for legal certainty, are not applied or followed by most administrative courts, leaving the door open to those seeking shortcuts, opportunity, and financial gain with absolute disregard for judicial certainty and the best interests of the parties to a controversy.

A few weeks ago the Immigration Courts in the United States (Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR) publicly announced they were hiring Spanish language interpreters nationwide to work in the immigration courts. Although this would place these interpreters directly under the supervision and control of the court, a big improvement over having people providing interpreting services in immigration court under the supervision of SOSi, the well-known language services provider that earned the contract by bidding lower than the rest, it is still bad policy that will eventually harm those who go to immigration court seeking relief.

EOIR’s announcement requires no reputable universally accepted court interpreter certification (federal or state level). It only requires candidates to pass a test with no scientific validation offered online.

This tendency to retain lesser qualified individuals for matters that could eventually affect someone’s life forever, such as a removal or an asylum case, is echoed by those who also settle for less interpreting quality in exchange for more money and argue that non-certified court interpreters, even if healthcare certified, or those who take cover under the unrecognized so-called “community interpreter” credential, are qualified to interpret depositions!

Depositions are a very delicate legal proceeding because they take place outside the presence of a judge. This means they require of an even more experienced certified court interpreter, not a lesser qualified paraprofessional. The most complex litigation, the ones involving enormous amounts of money, the ones often dealing with conflict of jurisdictions and legal systems, those governed by international conventions, and for those very reasons, the ones where interpreters earn the highest fees, always start with depositions very difficult even for many seasoned court interpreters.

Multi-million dollar lawsuits, intellectual property infringements, trade wars between nations, the livelihood of an injured worker who will never work again, removal proceedings that will keep a person outside the country for the rest of her/his life, asylum hearings, often an applicant’s last hope to protect her/his life, liberty and family unity are not less complicated cases. We cannot leave the administration of justice for those who do not speak the language of the court, judicial or administrative, in the hands of greedy agencies, ignorant unscrupulous authorities, and opportunists and incompetent paraprofessionals. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic and the disturbing tendencies we see.

What to do as an interpreter when the attorney makes a serious mistake.

November 11, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today.  This happened to me many years ago and made me think about my professional and ethical boundaries as a court interpreter.

It all started when I was hired by an attorney to interpret during a final decree of dissolution of marriage hearing. In other words, I was retained to interpret in court for a person who was getting a divorce.  I had never worked with this attorney before (or since) but I had seen him many times at different courthouses running from one courtroom to the next. He was a general practitioner who spoke Spanish, advertised on TV, and had a lot of cases.  He called me, we agreed on my fee, and we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse right outside the courtroom some thirty minutes before the hearing.  I arrived first and about ten or fifteen minutes later the attorney showed up accompanied by his client.  Again, keep in mind that the attorney spoke Spanish.  After the introductions, I asked the client the standard questions I am sure you all ask when you just met the non-English speaker:  full name (for spelling purposes because there are no grammar rules when it comes to a person’s name) country of origin (for accent, regional expressions, and general vocabulary) academic background (to assess the individual’s mastery of the target language) and general health-related questions (in case the person may have a special request due to hearing problems for example)  He answered all these questions to my satisfaction, and added that he “…had already discussed everything with (his) lawyer…(and) …everything was clear and in order…”  The attorney, who was present during the exchange, confirmed in Spanish everything his client said.  It was going to be an easy assignment.

When it was time for the hearing all three of us went inside the courtroom.  As soon as I came in I noticed the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiff. I didn’t see the other party or her attorney. I asked my client about it, and he informed me that the other party was not going to appear. That she had been given notice by publication because she wasn’t at her last known address anymore, and that his client would probably be awarded sole custody of the children born to the marriage despite the fact that they were with the mother at an unknown location.  This happens often, and I wasn’t complaining. The hearing was going to be even shorter. Boy I was glad I had successfully negotiated a generous minimum fee.

Next the judge came out and took the bench. The hearing started.  After the bailiff called the caption of the case and my client and I entered our appearance on the record, the judge placed the Spanish speaker petitioner under oath and began questioning him.  To my surprise, the petitioner told the judge that he and his wife had never lived together as a married couple in the United States. In fact, he told the court that his wife had never been to the U.S.

I looked at the judge and I saw that I wasn’t the only one in the courtroom that was shocked by the answers.  The judge also learned that the petitioner had never paid child support to his children. Next the judge asked the petitioner when the last time he had known the respondent’s address was. The Spanish speaker said, and I interpreted, that although he didn’t know where his wife lived, he was pretty sure he could find out because her parents still lived at the same address they had lived at for over twenty years.

With that, the judge shook his head. Looked at the attorney for a long time, and then said: “…I hereby dismiss this petition for dissolution of marriage due to lack of jurisdiction.  For this court to be able to hear this case, at some point in time the parties had to live within the judicial district as a married couple; unless without having lived within the jurisdiction, both parties voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of this court.  None of these circumstances happened in this case…” As if this wasn’t enough, addressing the petitioner, the judge added:  “…Sir, I have no doubt that your attorney will explain to you what just happened. He will also explain to you the following order: It is the order of the court that petitioner pay child support to his minor children according to the schedule applicable to this district. The child support payment will be retroactive to the time when petitioner ceased to live with the minors. I find that I have jurisdiction to enter this order because petitioner is a resident of the judicial district.  Good luck Sir…” The judge got up and exited the courtroom.  There was absolute silence. The Spanish speaker turned to his attorney and asked him what had just happened. He even remarked: “…I don’t think I am divorced yet…”  His attorney asked him to step outside the courtroom. We all did.

As we were leaving the courtroom, the attorney approached me and whispered to my ear in English: “…We better get your money from him right away. He won’t be a happy camper once he learns what just happened…” Once we were outside, the attorney told his client: “…Well, it didn’t go as we planned it, but we can fix it. I will explain everything when we get to my office…but first let’s pay the interpreter so he can go…”  The Spanish speaker pulled out some cash and with no hesitation he paid me right at the steps of the courthouse. This was a first for me, but I had done my job, so I took my fee, gave him a receipt, and said goodbye.  That was the last I heard about that case.  To this date, more than twenty years later, I still don’t know what happened.

Now, for me to arrive to the conclusion that I should get paid for my services was a no-brainer. I did my job.  The part of this situation that I had to debate in my head before I said my goodbyes was about the lawyer’s conduct and the damages caused to the petitioner by this apparent negligence.  This is how I made my decision: First, I didn’t know all the facts. I had no way to know if the attorney and his client knew that a dismissal was a possibility, but what they were really trying to do was to avoid a long and costly divorce proceeding. It could be expensive to look for the spouse back in their home country. This could have been a strategy. Maybe the lawyer really spaced out and didn’t consider the possibility of a lack of jurisdiction; maybe they were going to regroup at the office and try to either find the spouse and get her to consent to the jurisdiction of the court, or to file a divorce petition in their country.  Maybe the attorney was going to tell him that a child support order from this judge would be unenforceable back in his country, and that a child support ordered by a judge back home would involve a lesser amount that would be more in synch with the economy of the country of his children. Or maybe he was just going to apologize and refund the attorney’s fees.  The thing is that I didn’t know and I had no reason to think the worst.  Not many lawyers are willing to lose their license and reputation for a case that small. He was a big shot with TV ads and lots of clients.  Moreover, that was not my role. I had no legal, professional, or ethical grounds to do anything other than to take my money and leave.  There are legal channels for people who want to redress a controversy. The petitioner had to be the one to decide to do that, not me. The fact that he did not speak English did not mean that he was incapable to defend himself, and it certainly didn’t give me the right to get involved in a situation that was not my business. The judge didn’t get involved. He even said that he had no doubt that the attorney would explain everything to his client.  So you see, I defeated that impulse that many colleagues have to become super heroes, and I stayed out of it. Of course, if subpoenaed, I would have testified to what I saw and heard, but that is different. To this day I believe that I did the right thing and I would like to hear from you to see if you agree or disagree. I also invite you to share with all of us other situations where you have faced ethical or professional issues and the way you resolved them.

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