Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.
March 26, 2018 § 37 Comments
A recurring theme among my court interpreter colleagues in the United States is the extreme difficulties they must endure when working under the Criminal Justice Act program (CJA). There are complaints about absurd paperwork procedures and unimaginable payment delays. Some colleagues’ invoices for professional services rendered under this program have been outstanding for over a year!
I worked with attorneys under the CJA program, but when the system changed about 18 months ago, and interpreters’ invoices had to go through the defense attorneys to get paid, and I heard some of the delayed payment stories from colleagues nationwide, I decided not to take CJA cases anymore.
For those of you who do not do federal court interpreting work in the United States, in 1964 the United States Congress enacted the Criminal Justice Act (18 U.S.C. § 3006A) to provide a system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel; and providing for payment of experts, investigators, or other needed defense services in federal criminal proceedings, including interpreters. Today, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, with the over 10,000 private “panel attorneys” who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.
CJA panel attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $132 in non-capital cases, and, in capital cases, a maximum hourly rate of $185. These rates include both attorney compensation and office overhead. In addition, there are case maximums that limit total panel attorney compensation for categories of representation (for example, $10,000 for felonies, $2,900 for misdemeanors, and $7,200 for appeals). These maximums may be exceeded when higher amounts are certified by the district judge, or circuit judge if the representation is at the court of appeals, as necessary to provide fair compensation and the chief judge of the circuit approves. CJA attorney appointments are made by the Court on a rotating basis among members of the panel. Freelance federal court interpreters are paid with the same system, but with an additional step: Before their invoice goes to the judiciary, it must be reviewed and approved by the CJA panel attorney who requested the interpreter’s services. I guess interpreters are officers of the court of a lower tier, so they must be policed by the CJA panel attorney, apparently an officer of the court of a tier higher than the interpreter.
This process, not required when interpreters work directly for the federal courts interpreting court hearings or out-of-court interviews for public defenders or probation officers, created a burden on freelance interpreters who now devote a considerable, uncompensated time to the paperwork and its unavoidable eternal follow up process, that often takes many months and even years. Interpreters are billing for the time they worked as interpreters in a case, but that time represents but a fraction of the hours interpreters spend on paperwork, and follow up telephone calls, emails, and in-person visits to the courthouse, trying to discover the status of a payment for a service provided long before. This time goes uncompensated, and interpreters cannot work somewhere else, and generate income, while they are tied up in bureaucratic nonsense and begging for payment of rightfully earned professional fees. For all these reasons, and to keep my health, sanity, and dignity, as soon as the system started I decided not to take any CJA panel cases, and I have taken none.
I suggest you do the same. Once you do it, you will be surprised at the money you will save just by rejecting these cases. Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for years, know that I am always suggesting diversification in the profession among freelancers so you can keep steady income, and a stream of interesting assignments instead of a boring monotonous routine. Dear colleagues, there are plenty of options even if court and legal interpreting is your thing and you do not want to step outside your field.
The most desirable practice would be civil cases with well-established high-profile law firms. They generally handle interesting cases, have clients who understand and appreciate your work as interpreter, and pay excellent, professional fees when you negotiate correctly. Smaller civil law firms and solo practitioners are also a good alternative.
Next, you have the criminal defense private attorneys. They have time to handle their cases and they usually retain you for the entire case. Here your interpreting services are well paid, and you are exposed to challenging, but interesting cases. It is rare to work in a case involving white collar crimes when you spend your time providing services to public defenders and CJA panel attorneys.
Foreign law firms are also a very good choice. Globalization has generated a big multinational litigation practice, and those top-notch attorneys coming from countries where they do not speak English may need the services of a local court interpreter team. Fascinating topics, including intellectual property, foreign trade, mining, hazardous materials, are common with these clients. Family Law practitioners from these countries are also looking for interpreting services in cases of divorce, child support, international child abduction, and others.
If you want to fill in the rest of your agenda with more court/legal work, you can also provide interpreting services to the Office of the United States Attorney in your jurisdiction. Witness preparation, proffers, transcriptions, and other services are required by the AUSA. An added benefit: They are not bound by the (every-day lower) federal fees, so you can negotiate a much better compensation for your professional services.
If you like working with the federal prosecutors, then you must offer your services to the United States Trustee Program (USTP) for their exams and interviews in federal bankruptcy court cases. This is another source of legal/court interpreter income that pays well when you negotiate your fee correctly.
Finally, you can still work with the federal public defender and, if you want to interpret hearings instead of interviews, negotiations, and depositions, you can interpret for the federal courts. You will only make the set half –a-day or full-day fee, and you will usually get the same type of cases, but you will stay away from the long, demeaning, and never-ending invoice procedures associated with CJA panel attorney cases. As a less desirable option, but in many ways better than dealing with the CJA system, you could always work at the state-court level.
Dear friends and colleagues, there are plenty of alternatives to CJA assignments, even within the court/legal field. I believe that if you all were to do what I did from the beginning, the CJA system would have no choice but to change and become more interpreter-friendly. I do not believe on “fantasyland solutions” such as talking to chief judges and court clerks; it was tried in some districts and they accomplished nothing. We cannot continue to lose income, health, and dignity backing up a system that proved ineffective. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us.
“Excuse me, interpreter, we will record your rendition”.
January 22, 2018 § 15 Comments
A few months ago I came back to the booth after a break during an event I was interpreting and I found my boothmate talking to one of the conference attendees. He was asking for her permission to bring a digital recorder inside the booth because he wanted to record the interpretation of the conference. Before my colleague responded, I explained to the gentleman that recording an interpreter rendition is more complex than simply asking the interpreter. I told him that it would not be possible to record us, and I asked him to talk to the event organizers who would work on all clearances and legal documents needed before anything could be recorded to be played back at a later time. He understood my polite negative, picked up his microphone and recording devise, and exited the booth.
Once we were alone, my boothmate told me she did not know that anything other than our consent was needed. She told me that often, other organizers and agencies had recorded her rendition without even asking for her permission. I was very surprised.
The United States and many other countries have enacted legislation that protect intellectual property. There are also international conventions to protect patents, trademarks, and copyrights covering tangible and intangible products discovered, invented, or created by the human mind. The use and exploitation of this intellectual property without the authorization of the author violates law and perpetrators are subject to both criminal and civil liability.
Only after the author, or legal holder, of an intellectual property right has consented to its use or exploitation this can be manufactured, sold, printed, reproduced, or used. Because the protected intellectual property is the work product of an individual, this inventor, creator, or author must be compensated. Such compensation is called royalties.
American legislation defines royalties as “…a percentage of gross or net profit, or a fixed amount per sale to which a creator of a work is entitled which is agreed upon in a contract between the creator and the manufacturer, publisher, agent, and/or distributor. “ Inventors, authors, movie makers, music composers, scriptwriters, musicians, interpreters, translators, and other creators of an intellectual product , contract with manufacturers, publishers, movie production companies, producers, event organizers, agents, and distributors to be paid royalties in exchange for a license or authorization to manufacture or sell the product. Royalties are payments made by one entity (the licensee) to another entity (the licensor) in exchange for the right to use intellectual property or physical assets owned by the licensor.
In a situation like the one I describe above, the speaker at the podium is the author of the knowledge and information he is disseminating among the attendees to the conference. He owns that intellectual property. The interpreters in the booth are the authors of the content in the target language of the knowledge and information the speaker at the podium disseminated in the source language. Both, the speaker (in the source language) and the interpreters (in the target language) would be licensors to the attendee who requested the recording when he went to the booth. This individual would be the licensee to the speaker as far as the knowledge and information disseminated by the speaker during the speech, and for the elocution of the contents in the source language. He would also be the licensee to the interpreters for the rendition of the speech into the foreign (signed, or indigenous) target language.
The attendee would need, at least, the authorization of the speaker to record the presentation in the source language, and the consent of both, speaker and interpreters to record the presentation in the target language. Attendee would need to negotiate the payment of royalties with speaker and interpreters, and all licensors would need to be compensated for the use of their intellectual property.
It could be more complicated; the speaker may have partners who coauthored the paper he is presenting; a university, government, or other entity may be the legal holder to the intellectual property rights because of a contractual agreement between the speaker and his sponsors. The interpreters could have negotiated the sale of their intellectual property (the rendition into the target language) to the agency that retained them, the main speaker, the university, government or other entity who sponsored the research, or any other party legally entitled to said intellectual property. It is never as simple as letting the attendee record your rendition.
Years ago, interpreters would get to the booth, and whenever there were no speakers of the target language they were there to interpret, they would just sit in the booth doing very little. There were no “customers” for their intellectual product. This has changed. Now often interpreters must interpret into their target language even if there are no speakers in the room, because there may be others virtually attending the presentation from a remote location, or because the speech, and its interpretation into several target languages, will be sold to others who could not attend the live event.
For this reason interpreters must know of the event organizer’s plans. If there will be a video or audio recording of the presentation, we must negotiate royalties. Those fees belong to us, not to the speaker or the event organizer; and they do not belong in the pockets of the agency that hired us to do the conference. As interpreters we must be very careful of what we sign. Speaker and event organizer may be paying royalties to the agency for the recording, and the interpreting agency may not be passing these payments on to you, the rightful owner.
Interpreters can negotiate this intellectual property rights. They can sell them to a third party if they wish to do so. They can even transfer them for free. It is up to the skill and business mind of the interpreter to decide what to do, but we must know that we can negotiate; that we are in the driver’s seat. I would allow no type of recording of my work unless I get paid royalties. How I negotiate payment, how to calculate them, and whether or not I will settle for a lump payment or a recurring payment every time the recording is sold, will depend on the content, and my long term relationship with that client.
Please do not ignore your intellectual property rights. The United States Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and other legislation will protect us in the U.S., but when working abroad, and even when the work product (recorded rendition) will be sold abroad, or the licensee entity is a foreign national, check local legislation and look for any international treaty. Finally, regardless of the location of the job, always include an intellectual property/payment of royalties clause in your interpreting services contract. At the minimum you should prohibit any recording of your rendition without your written consent.
I now invite you to leave your comments and to share your experiences with this issue that will be more pervasive every day.
Is it true that interpreters must abstain from public commentary?
December 10, 2017 § 3 Comments
I have recently read many comments about the court interpreter in California who decided to talk to the media after she provided her services to the defendant in a high profile criminal case. To my surprise, must comments promptly endorsed the position that a court interpreter cannot make any public comment. Such extreme “black and white opinion” is quite concerning.
Before expressing such a sweeping opinion, interpreters should reflect on the purpose of their professional service, the reasons for the rule or legislation, and what the consequences of failing to observe it really are. Let’s see:
The main topic concerning this analysis is confidentiality. The nature of the duty of confidentiality is based on two things: the subject matter or area of interpretation, and a scale of values.
Different subject matters or fields of interpreting will be governed by different legislation, interests, and goals. If the interpreter’s professional practice involves intellectual property, diplomacy, or national security, there will be many limitations and restrictions as to the things the interpreter can share with others. Most of these duties will come from legislation, not canons of ethics of regulations. Many others will derive from contractual obligations regarding commercial brands, patents and copyrights.
The scale of values is also important: The more important the value, the stricter the responsibility.
Revealing the content of diplomatic negotiations could have implications of war and peace, and the interpreter could even go to prison, or at least lose his job and reputation.
Revealing medical information can disrupt a patient’s health or treatment, impact insurance coverage, kill a patient’s future employment opportunities, and generate legal problems for hospitals, physicians and interpreters.
When we provide diplomatic or military interpreting services at certain level, we are required to undergo a security clearance process and we take a legally binding oath to secrecy. Breaching this legal obligation will bring catastrophic consequences to the interpreter.
The California case gives us the opportunity to revisit a court interpreter’s duty of confidentiality, so we can see how sweeping statements like those made by some of our colleagues last week, most of them in good faith, are not so categorically right.
First, we need to understand what is protected by the duty of confidentiality, and who imposes the restrictions on the court interpreter.
Interpreters exist because there must be equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language the court or the parties to a controversy speak. Here we must make a distinction:
(1) The court interpreter as a communication tool to the litigant.
When a plaintiff, defendant or victim cannot actively participate in their legal case because of a language barrier, the court interpreter acts as the ears and voice of the foreign language speaker in communications with the court, his attorneys, and the opposite party. Interpreters render a complete, accurate interpretation of everything that is said during the hearing, and interpret to the court and parties everything the foreign language speaker says. These interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.
These are the interpreters hired by the court, paid from the courthouse budget, and selected from a roster kept by the clerk’s office.
When a plaintiff or defendant want to be represented by a private attorney, but they cannot communicate with their attorneys because of a language barrier, those privately retained attorneys can also hire professionals court interpreters in private practice to help them communicate with their foreign speaking client, their client’s relatives, and with those witnesses who do not speak the language of the attorneys. In this case it is the attorney who selects the interpreters from prior experiences or referrals from others; and it is the attorney, not the court, who pays the interpreters’ fees (very likely from the plaintiff or defendant’s assets). This interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.
As we can see, in both cases, interpreters work with information that is public record. This means that everybody has access to what was said or done. For example: As a rule, court hearings are open to the public. Anybody can go to the courthouse and sit in the courtroom during a trial. At the State-level, many jurisdictions broadcast their proceedings in public and even commercial TV. All legal arguments, court rulings, and witness statements are heard by all interested individuals.
Both, court appointed and privately retained interpreters are privy to confidential information not because of who the interpreters are as individuals, buy because of what they do for living. This information is sensitive in nature and if disclosed, it could adversely impact third party innocent individuals. For these reasons, interpreters are usually barred from sharing this information. Details surrounding a case that come to the knowledge of the parties, but are irrelevant to the outcome of the controversy are kept from the public. Names of business partners, financial information, paternity, personal health information, sealed court cases, juvenile court records, are just some of the examples that fall under this category.
While working with an attorney, all interpreters learn what is called privileged information. This is crucial, intimate information about the subject matter of the controversy that lawyers need to know to represent their clients and defend their interests. This information is treated differently because it is only when a person knows that statements made to their attorney in confidence cannot be disclosed to anyone, not even the judge or jury in the case, that clients can truly open up to their attorneys and share all details of a case. Those acting as agents of the attorney, such as paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, are covered by the client-attorney privilege, and nobody, not even a judge can compel them to disclose said privileged information.
(2) The court interpreter as auxiliary agent to the administration of justice.
The court system has a vested interest on the perception that the administration of justice within its jurisdiction is equally fair to all citizens, even those who do not speak the language of the court. For this reason, courts have set policy to clarify this principle, and reassure all potential litigants of the impartiality of the court, even in those cases when a foreigner is party to a controversy, especially in criminal cases where life or liberty are at stake.
This principle has motivated some courts (not all of them), in particular in the United States, to go beyond what many would consider reasonable, and impose the strictest restrictions to some of the things court interpreters can and cannot do. Based on this one-sided extremely restrictive rules, the federal courts of the United States abide by the United States District Court Code of Ethics for court interpreters, who have been sworn as officers of the court for the duration of the assignment, and interpret under contract with such court, “…to follow the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts…” (USDC Code of Ethics. Preamble)
The Federal Code of Ethics contains some important principles needed to practice the court interpreter profession that are free of controversy, such as Rule 5: “Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information…”
It also covers other situations where restrictions seem unreasonable and arbitrary, like Rule 3 where it states that: “…During the course of the proceedings, interpreters shall not converse with parties, witnesses, …attorneys, or with friends and relatives of the party, except in the discharge of their official functions…”, or Rule 6: “Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential…”
Dear friends and colleagues, we must remember that the above restrictions by the United States District Court Code of Ethics only apply to court interpreters who are providing their professional services when they “…are sworn in (and) they become, for the duration of the assignment, officers of the court with the specific duty and responsibility of interpreting between English and the language specified. …In their capacity as officers of the court, contract court interpreters are expected to follow the standards for performance and professional responsibility for contract court interpreters in the federal courts…”
In other words, said restrictions, as they are not the law, but a mere contractual obligation, only apply to those who are providing their services in federal court pursuant to a contract with the court. These blanket restrictions do not apply to any of us when working as interpreters in federal court if we have been retained by one of the parties.
Once we understand this limitation, and the different role interpreters play when they act as a communication tool to the litigant with his attorneys, and in those cases when they also act as an auxiliary arm to the administration of justice and are paid by their judiciary. It is obvious that legal restrictions and limitations such as client-attorney privilege and confidentiality will apply to all interpreters as they are part of the essence of the legal representation, but other limitations that go beyond that scope will not apply to privately retained interpreters as they exist to assure impartiality and transparency to the extreme. This is not necessary with private attorneys and their interpreters as they are publicly known as part of a team: plaintiff’s or defendant’s.
To the latter group of interpreters, sharing what is already public record should be no problem; and in my personal opinion, I do not believe that even court appointed interpreters should be sanctioned for sharing public information with the media. I believe that telling a reporter that a hearing was moved from 1 pm to 2 pm and saving her the trouble to go up 20 stories to read the same information on the court’s bulletin board will hardly raise suspicion of prejudice, particularity when we know that interpreting is a fiduciary profession. To me, it looks very weird when the interpreter refuses to answer such silly questions and reacts by moving away without an explanation.
As far as confidential information, please be aware that the prohibition is not absolute either. A court order can compel you to testify. Please remember that the client holds the right to said confidentiality, and as such, he or she can always give consent. When this happens, confidentiality goes away. Will these ever happen in your professional career? We do not know, but we should always be aware that it is a possibility.
Even client-attorney privilege is not absolute. There are certain exceptions in the law that allow you to pierce the veil of this sacrosanct privilege. Among other possibilities, the client, who holds the privilege, can also lift it by giving consent; you can also pierce it when defending yourself from the actions of the client who holds said privilege. Let’s say that the client sues you arguing that the interpreter did nothing in the case. Under those circumstances you can pierce the privilege to prove that the client is not telling the truth and show the work you did, as long as the privileged information you divulged is limited and tailored to the point you are trying to prove in court. Statements and information provided during a client-attorney communication that include future illegal activity is not covered by the privilege either, and you as interpreter must disclose it to the authorities.
We must remember at all times that different jurisdictions will have different policy, rules and legislation, so we must adhere to all applicable rules, as long as they apply to us, depending on the type of professional service we are going to provide.
In the case of California, please keep all of the above in mind, and understand that Rule 2.890(c)(4) states that: “…An interpreter must not make statements to any person about the merits of the case until the litigation has concluded…”
Notice how the rule does not go beyond the conclusion of the case, because the rule (erroneously in my opinion) does not make a distinction between interpreters privately retained by the parties who act as a communication tool to the litigant, and those retained by the courts who also must play the role of auxiliary agents to the administration of justice and therefore be impartial at all times. Once there are no more appeals, there is no reason for the restriction on the first type of interpreter.
Finally, a couple of thoughts: I was saddened to see how must of my colleagues immediately assume the role of a criminal court interpreter retained by the court. I am always hoping that more interpreters view themselves as independent professionals working with private attorneys. There is an abysmal difference in professional fees, and the work is about the same. I ask you to please think like a private practitioner, instead of accepting the rules without any reservation. Question the rules and try to understand why they compel you to do or abstain from doing something.
It also concerned me how so many of our court interpreter colleagues rush to “obey” anything the courts say without even checking the source of the “command”. Many people criticized and condemned the interpreter who spoke to the media because of what the “Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters” say. Please understand that this is just a manual, not legislation, regulations, or a court decision. It is just a didactic tool for those who are trying to understand the profession. Use it as such. Observe the California Rules of Court.
I hope we all understand that professional rules include universal standard values, but they also incorporate local culture so necessary for an administration of justice that reflects the values of the community it is meant to serve. For this reason, I. Sincerely hope we all come to understand that asking for universal rules or codes is not the best legal option. A system like the one we have is an appropriate one. We just need to understand the rules better, and fight to change those we believe constitute a hurdle to our profession. I now ask you to please share your founded legal arguments on this issue that could adversely impact our profession.