Trends 2013-2016

A list of monthly Trends articles for August 2013 through October 2016 has been compiled.  See full article archive.

Video Remote Interpretation as a Business Solution


Courts are under increasing pressure to provide broader interpreter services. One strategy for meeting the demand is video remote interpretation (VRI), and pilots of VRI are now demonstrating acceptable quality and cost.


Courts have been using videoconferencing for some time in several capacities. Judicial training is probably the most widely used purpose, followed closely by video arraignments in criminal cases to avoid the cost and danger of prisoner transport. Until recently, any other court applications of videoconferencing were relatively rare and often not satisfactory because of quality issues. Those other uses included remote expert witnesses, remote interpreters, and remote testimony by juveniles who were being kept anonymous. All of these applications of videoconferencing were used only when physical participation in the court hearing was impossible. In other words, it was a last resort.

Fortunately, technical progress with videoconferencing in general has been both steady and significant over the last several years. Quality has improved in several ways. First, the general availability of high-definition video goes a long way toward reproducing an experience that more closely matches the direct physical experience by clearly showing important aspects of body language. Second, most videoconferencing products, both hardware and software, are becoming more compliant with open technical standards, making it easier to reliably connect two parties. Finally, the cost of both hardware and software is speedily decreasing, as with all technology these days.

Of course, it does not matter how good or inexpensive videoconferencing technology is if a court or a remote participant in a court hearing cannot connect over a sufficiently fast Internet connection. Fortunately, the minimum requirement for a quality video and audio connection is at the very low end of what is now considered the broadband range, so individuals and courts are increasingly able to support that requirement.[i] Video connections can also be easily designed to “fail over” to audio-only connections if the bandwidth is insufficient. Since several states are currently using audio remote interpretation, it serves as a useful benchmark and starting point for video capabilities.

In the latest national survey, less than 6 percent of all households, and probably a lower percentage of courthouses, are unable to access at least a T1 level of throughput, which is 1.5 megabits per second. The proportion of households lacking broadband continues to decrease significantly each year, so we can expect this problem to continuously diminish in magnitude. Even better, courts will be motivated to upgrade their wide area networks to all courthouses to support their e-courts initiatives adequately. That shifts some of the cost burden off of VRI and makes the business case easier to justify.

A range of video alternatives exist in the current marketplace. Choices will depend on the business requirements for particular hearing types; the degree to which courtrooms or hearing rooms already use technology, such as digital audio and cameras; and the budget constraints. Rather than mandating a single technology solution, courts might be wise to provide several tiers of remote capability suited to the situations and budgets of specific courts. For example, a remote rural court might use Skype or Jabber, while a large urban court with an advanced electronic courtroom might use the latest and greatest video equipment.

Once the technology infrastructure becomes capable of adequately supporting a court’s need, the next step is working out pertinent policies and business processes to ensure sufficient legal quality. This kind of work is best done in real life using pilot implementations. No amount of legal or conceptual discussion can foresee what the experience will be like when participants in real court hearings try to use videoconferencing. As in all new business processes, some training and practice is necessary to attain the necessary skill levels and coordination.

Appropriate policies and processes are a tricky mix of legal protections and practical capabilities that influence each other. For example, one might restrict the use of VRI to very limited and controlled hearing types and translation situations if high definition is not available, because the lack of body language could meaningfully threaten due process. Most court hearings cannot appropriately use VRI if the reliability of the connection is questionable, since busy dockets cannot and should not wait for technical glitches to be solved.[ii]

Another significant concern is quality assurance. Most states have established training requirements for their interpreters, and many vendors do the same. Any use of VRI must also provide for training and quality assurance. One way to do this, for a national cloud capability, is a contract provision specifying both training requirements and a quality-assurance process. Current state court policies, especially in jurisdictions piloting VRI, can be models or starting points.

It is unclear exactly what legal requirements should exist for video recordings of remote interpreters. If there is a need for such recordings, then storage-and-archiving requirements will need to be established. Most modern court case management systems can store and link video files to docket entries for hearings, if necessary. The bigger problem, as for all electronic records, is preservation and access. How will courts guarantee that video-recording formats will be usable in the future and that the recordings will still be intact? These are open questions.

Thirteen states have implemented pilot VRI projects or are expanding existing projects. Another fourteen states are planning to explore or evaluate VRI capabilities during the next year. An even larger number of states are already using audio approaches to remote interpretation. This base of experience provides a solid starting point for establishing best practices.[iii] One should not overstate the value of these pilot implementations for reducing the risk of large-scale use.[iv] In most states, the courts actually using VRI are limited to a few jurisdictions and a small number of hearing types. VRI use at the counter and for non-courtroom hearings is even rarer.

Needless to say, the advent of operational VRI in courts has met with mixed support from professional interpreters. There are serious, valid concerns about appropriate use. Almost everyone can recall a bad experience of some kind with videoconferencing in general, so we know that proper implementation is very important. We also know that interpreters and other hearing participants must adhere to best practices and become comfortable with the process. Not every interpreter can be a remote interpreter.

Fortunately, under the direction of the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC), the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) is working on national guidelines now, and a number of states already use local guidelines.[v] In 2013 COSCA also passed a resolution authorizing LAAC and CLAC to establish best practices for the use of VRI and create a national database of qualified interpreters.

Each jurisdiction is in a different situation and will probably use VRI in different ways. For example, some states have many interpreters available for a majority of their core languages in many locations. They may have excess capacity that could be used by other, less fortunate states. At the other extreme, some more rural states may have very few practical interpreter resources and may need to do more hearings with VRI than others. Finally, there are many rare languages where few qualified resources are available nationally.

The last scenario illustrates a core business case for creating a national “cloud” VRI capability. While the cloud is definitely a buzzword now, we use it here to describe the ability of a court to schedule a remote interpreter for any language from any location using VRI. Depending on the capabilities of the cloud provider, remote interpreters may need to be scheduled, or they may be available in near real time. Cloud providers must respond to variations in demand across many courts without knowing ahead of time what that demand will be. The great advantage of a national cloud provider is that a court need not worry most of the time about finding the interpreter they need.

The first step toward a national cloud provider is creating a national database of qualified remote interpreters. This move alone would benefit most jurisdictions if it included many of the rarer languages, because finding and scheduling physical interpreters for the rarer languages is time-consuming and expensive. A national database of qualified interpreters matches supply to demand efficiently while eliminating travel costs.

VRI is obviously not a total solution to the interpreter problem. It is one strategy among several and should be used appropriately. VRI is probably a good solution when it is cost prohibitive to use a physical interpreter or when doing so would cause inappropriate case delays. When it is simply impossible to access a physical interpreter, VRI can be a solution. For most jurisdictions, VRI may be the best alternative for many rarer languages. Conversely, jurisdictions with many interpreters on staff for more common languages may find that they can augment revenues by selling the services of their interpreters to other courts.

While using large, high-definition screens definitely improves the body-language problem and high bandwidth mitigates audio-and-visual-quality issues, it is still not clear what hearing types will ultimately be judged appropriate for VRI. As use spreads, practical experience will help courts make that decision. It is already clear that using VRI and mobile end points will significantly mitigate translation problems at the counter and in informal hearing rooms. Encounters outside the courtroom may be perceived by case participants with interpretation needs as significant barriers. Courts should not concentrate their efforts exclusively on the courtroom and fixed VRI end points.

If the business case for VRI proves attractive to many jurisdictions, they will reap a bonus. The same high-performance videoconferencing infrastructure can be reused for other court purposes, such as remote expert witnesses or juveniles that need to remain anonymous. The hardware and software only needs to be purchased once.

Federal Department of Justice guidelines are broad and do include interpreter services outside the courtroom. Some courts are already experiencing a significant need for interpreters at the counter and elsewhere in the courthouse. As mentioned above, the use of mobile end points for VRI has the potential to readily support these additional needs. Courts will need to carefully consider when permanent fixed end points are appropriate and when mobile end points would be more advantageous.

American state and local courts can benefit from the experience of others with VRI. Other industries, such as health care, already make significant use of VRI. Other countries have used VRI for years, with Australia being one of the obvious leaders. U.S. courts and vendors can benefit from this prior experience and its hard-won lessons about how best to implement VRI. Because the technology used for VRI is evolving so rapidly, courts should be careful not to take these prior experiences too literally when it comes to making technology decisions.

It is safe to say that court use of VRI will increase along with improvements in the technical infrastructure and demand for qualified interpreters. Courts will incrementally add this new capability to their technology arsenal as needed. With luck, a national cloud VRI capability will also soon be available.

[i] For a proposed set of VRI business and technical requirements drafted by an informal group of court representatives from Florida, Kentucky, Texas, Oregon, Utah, West Virginia, South Dakota, Nebraska, and New York, see Clarke, 2012.

[ii] To see how courts are planning to deal with due-process issues, see the report on a new rule by the Arizona courts:  “Report to the Arizona Judicial Council from the Criminal Rules Video-Conference Advisory Committee,” Administrative Order 2008. See also the draft revisions of pertinent Michigan court rules:  Supreme Court Order 2013-18. The latter also includes proposed standards for use.

[iii] For an interesting example of a pilot project that resulted in comprehensive recommendations for appropriate policies and business processes, as well as a quantitative business case, see the Wisconsin pilot report by Brummond and Mikshowsky (2012).

[iv] For a broader international view of appropriate practices for the use of remote appearances, see Schellhammer (2013). For a critical report on the use of VRI for sign language in Australia, see Napier (2011).

[v] LAAC published its first version of business and technical requirements in July 2013. For an example of state guidelines for ASL, see Clark, Marx, and Varela (2012).

Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.