Delaware’s Successful Strides Toward Language Access in the Courts

Delaware’s Court Interpreter Program is a state-funded, centralized program that coordinates all the Delaware courts’ language service needs.  Detailed records of all interpreter services used permit Delaware to focus on adequate funding for this program and to anticipate current and future needs of Delaware’s limited-English-proficient (LEP) population.

Maria Perez-Chambers
Coordinator, Court Interpreter Program, Delaware

Ashley Tucker
Staff Attorney, Delaware Administrative Office of the Courts

Court Interpreter Program and Language Access

In the 1990s, Delaware, the “Small Wonder,” faced a big problem with improving the interpreter services provided to those with special language needs in the Delaware courts. In its 1996 report, the Delaware Supreme Court’s Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness found that “court interpreters have not always been available to [LEP] individuals when needed and interpreters who have been used sometimes have not provided effective interpretation or have acted in an unprofessional manner.” Although the supreme court issued Administrative Directive 107 earlier in 1996, which promulgated policies and procedures related to the use of court interpreters in the Delaware courts, the combination of the directive and the task force’s work represented important first steps in the long process of developing a strong court interpreter program. Administrative Directive 107 also created the Court Interpreter Program (CIP) in the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to administer the standardized policies and practices related to providing interpreter services in the courts, as well as to overseeing credentialing, scheduling, and payment of court interpreters in languages other than English, including American Sign Language (ASL) for court users who are deaf or hard of hearing.

In response to the sustained growth of Delaware’s limited-English-proficiency (LEP) population, and consistent with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines, 67 Fed. Reg. 41445 (June 18, 2002), the Delaware judiciary, through the AOC, remained true to its commitment to language access by developing a formal language access plan to govern efforts in support of ensuring meaningful access to all who enter the Delaware's Successful StridesDelaware courts.

Identifying and Meeting Language Needs

Delaware uses census data and AOC records to identify the most prevalent language needs and build its language access program accordingly. The 2010 United States Census revealed that Delaware’s Hispanic or Latino population makes up 8.2 percent of Delaware’s total population. AOC records, which track court requests for court interpreter services, confirmed that Spanish services were the most frequently requested language services. In fiscal year 2011, a total of 2,374 court events required 6,189 foreign-language-interpreter hours and provided language assistance to an estimated 8,939 LEP litigants.[1] Of these 8,939 LEP litigants, 89 percent were Spanish speakers. Haitian Creole, the second most frequently requested language, is a distant second with 211 litigants. Spanish is, by far, the predominant language of LEP individuals accessing the Delaware courts.

Based upon this statistical information, Delaware has tailored its language services program to address geographic exigencies, the number of certified/qualified interpreters available, and court demands. Delaware has three counties—New Castle, Kent, and Sussex—of which New Castle is the most populous. Not surprisingly, New Castle County has the largest LEP population and saw 60 percent (1,427 of the 2,374) of the interpreting events in fiscal year 2011. Furthermore, courts of first instance, consisting of the justice-of-the-peace court, family court, and the court of common pleas (a misdemeanor limited-jurisdiction court), requested language services most frequently. For example, in fiscal year 2011, justice-of-the-peace courts used 22 percent, family courts used 34 percent, and courts of common pleas used 41 percent of the total interpreter hours. CIP has focused on responding to each court’s needs and specific requirements. One successful tool developed to this end is the coordinated Spanish interpreter calendars prearranged by the CIP.

Interpreters for coordinated Spanish interpreter calendars for New Castle County’s court of common pleas and family and justice-of-the-peace courts are scheduled in advance for three-month increments. The calendars are posted electronically (public folders in the state’s Outlook e-mail application), allowing access by all courts. Along with New Castle County’s coordinated Spanish interpreter calendars, individual interpreter calendars, including interpreter services secured for languages other than Spanish, are posted electronically for all courts statewide. This system has proven valuable by standardizing access to Spanish interpreters for all courts; enabling any court staff to easily determine if there is an interpreter already scheduled to provide services in that court on a given day and which interpreter is available; and serving as confirmation to the court that requested interpreter services have been scheduled.

A second successful tool used to meet the needs of the courts and LEP individuals is evening calendars. The justice-of-the-peace courts historically see the largest numbers of litigants, English speaking and LDelaware's Successful StridesEP. To address these numbers, the justice-of-the-peace courts schedule “Hispanic Arraignments,” where calendars are scheduled specifically for Spanish-speaking defendants charged with motor vehicle violations and other misdemeanors. These calendars are scheduled on set days per week, depending on the demand. Two interpreters and two judges are assigned to these calendars, and up to 30 Spanish-speaking LEPs may be scheduled.

In addition to these two specific tools, the CIP administers standard general procedures to secure interpreter services. Every court in each county has two staff members responsible for receiving requests for interpreter services from within their court, state agencies, the Delaware Bar, or other sources. These staff members schedule and post the secured language services. Court staff have been trained by the CIP coordinator on these general procedures. Preference is given to securing in-person, certified, or duly qualified interpreters from the Delaware Interpreter Registry for all hearings. The coordinator provides support to court staff to address requests for rare languages or those for which there are no certified/qualified interpreters in the registry, or if an unusual circumstance arises.

Additional procedures are in place for unanticipated needs for language services. The initial step is to secure an in-person interpreter through the electronic calendars. Absent the timely availability of an in-person interpreter, CIP offers two types of telephonic interpreter services. One service is manned by Delaware registry interpreters and permits judges to access the more frequently used languages at reasonable rates; the other service is offered through an outside-language-services vendor. Telephonic services are usually reserved for nonevidentiary hearings, such as arraignments and capias returns.

Data Collection and Analysis

A third important tool helps track and quantify the demand for language services to forecast future needs and projected costs. The request-for-payment form was designed by the CIP coordinator and the AOC’s fiscal department for use with all foreign language and ASL interpreter assignments. Interpreters complete the form immediately, which includes all pertinent information about the services rendered, such as in-person or telephonic service; county and court; interpreter arrival and departure time; number of litigants receiving service; whether LEP was a defendant, litigant, parent of juvenile, witness, or victim; and type of hearing. Data collected from each RFP form is compiled electronically (using an Excel format) and tallied, along with expenditures, for all events. A summary captures the total number of events for each language, the total number of litigants served in each court and for each county, and expenditures per language.

At year’s end, the CIP coordinator issues a report including the total number of interpreting hours provided broken down by court and county; the number of LEP litigants receiving services by court and county; number of LEP litigants who were defendants/litigants, parents of juveniles, witnesses, or victims; types of hearings; number of interpreting events by language; and total expenditures for the fiscal year. These data are used for fiscal projections, to calibrate the number of interpreters needed, and to confirm that appropriate language services are being provided.

Program and Funding

Delaware’s Court Interpreter Program is centrally managed by the AOC under the direction of the Court Interpreter Program Advisory Board. The board is composed of five judges, a certified interpreter, and the AOC’s CIP coordinator. The coordinator’s position is full-time and currently held by a certified interpreter. The coordinator is responsible for overseeing the entire program, ranging from performing daily administrative tasks; developing appropriate policies and guidelines; conducting recruiting, education, and training; and maintaining a registry of court-approved interpreters. The registry is updated once a year and distributed to the courts and relevant agencies, such as the Delaware Department of Justice and the Public Defender’s Office.

The Court Interpreter Program was initially started with grant funds but is now state funded through a separate budget appropriation within the judicial branch budget. Budgeted monies pay for interpreter services received, as well as for other program needs such as candidate orientation, training, and certification exams.

Delaware's Successful StridesAll of Delaware’s court interpreters provide services on a contractual basis, and those on the registry have, as independent contractors, entered into service agreements with the AOC. To date, there are no full-time or part-time staff interpreter positions.

Training and Educational Outreach

To communicate the Delaware judiciary’s language access plan to all the Delaware judges and court staff and to standardize practices in all courts, the CIP coordinator has made presentations on the plan and general and court-specific procedures to judges and court staff in all courts and counties. All relevant materials, such as procedures, the language access plan, the registry, and required forms, are available through the Delaware judiciary’s “intranet” page.

The judges are also provided with bench cards on “Best Practices for Working with Court Interpreters in the Courtroom.” The bench cards explain how judges can evaluate the language proficiency of those who appear in their courtroom and determine whether interpreter services should be provided. Judges are also provided with guidelines to evaluate an interpreter’s credentials and qualifications, and an overview of the interpreter’s role, duties, and responsibilities to the court and the parties.

Educational outreach extends to other agencies, such as the Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Conflict Counsel, as well as members of the Delaware Bar. Materials, such as the “Best Practices for Attorneys Working with Foreign Language and ASL Interpreters,” are disseminated through the state bar association. Presentations on best practices by the CIP coordinator have been sponsored by courts and agencies.

Pilot Programs and Future Initiatives

In line with language-access-plan goals, and in conjunction with court-sponsored initiatives, such as the Delaware Courts: Fairness for All Task Force, efforts are underway to expand the range of services that will ensure fair access to the courts for all individuals. As a result of a 2009 pilot project, non-bilingual court staff can access telephonic interpreter services to assist LEP individuals at the point of first contact with the court. First contact often occurs when an LEP individual makes an unscheduled appearance at court and has questions or wants to pay a fine. Court staff have been provided with materials to help determine the LEP individual’s native language before they access telephonic interpreter services.

The CIP translation initiative has asked each court to identify their most frequently used critical documents and has translated those documents into Spanish. Spanish information brochures and complaint forms are available online, and additional efforts are being made to promote the availability of the court educational materials to the public through their distribution to community centers and other means. A Spanish video illustrating the civil processes in the justice-of-the-peace and the family courts is currently in production.

Finally, efforts are underway to identify current bilingual (English/Spanish) employees and affirmatively hire bilingual employees. The courts are stepping up their efforts to reach out to diverse communities through outreach programs so that the different communities’ needs can be better understood and served in the future.

Conclusion

Delaware’s Court Interpreter Program is now in its 15th year, and great strides have been made in turning what once represented a big problem in providing qualified court interpreters to LEP individuals in court, into a more manageable, if still demanding, one. The CIP’s framework and goals are guided by the Delaware judiciary’s language access plan, and it is a state-funded, centralized program with a dedicated staff that coordinates all the courts’ language requirements. By focusing on gathering statistical data, the Court Interpreter Program can help quantify which language services are needed, which courts require the most services, the types of services used by each court, the number of interpreters required, and the overall cost of the program. This information helps the program better judge the individual language-access needs of each court and anticipate the projected costs and future needs for language services in Delaware courts.


[1] An event is defined as a court proceeding involving one or more LEP litigants requiring interpreter services. An event may also encompass one or several types of hearings: arraignments, pleas, and violations of probation or mediation, for example.