Written By Christopher Dolan and Carole Okolowicz
This week’s question comes from an anonymous writer who asks: If you are charged with a crime in California and do not understand English, you have a right to an interpreter in court. (Cal Const Art 1, Sec 14.) If you have an attorney, they may provide an interpreter; the court will provide one if you do not have an attorney. But, do you have a right to an interpreter in a non-criminal situation? For example, if a car hits and injures you, or your employer wrongfully fired you, and you have to file a lawsuit, do you have a right to an interpreter?
Let’s start at the beginning. One of the first decisions you make when you are injured or mistreated is whether to hire an attorney and which attorney to hire. Many California lawyers and law firm staff note if they speak languages other than English on their website. If you are unsure if the attorneys speak another language other than English, when contacting an attorney, you may want to ask a family member or friend to translate for you.
Next, during litigation, you may have to appear for a deposition as your case proceeds. A deposition is a question-and-answer session which does not happen in court but, you are still sworn in to tell the truth. You have a right to have an interpreter during your deposition, and your attorney will hire one for you. During your deposition, the lawyer for the other side asks you questions, you respond, and a court reporter types everything said, creating a record.
Last, it is very likely that you will never have to appear in court in your civil case. Most cases settle without ever going to trial. But if your case does go to trial, an interpreter must be provided for you. An interpreter must be provided for any witness “who is incapable of understanding the English language or is incapable of expressing himself or herself in the English language” in a way that can be understood by the attorneys, the court, and the jury. (Evid. Code 752(a).) This is a rule of evidence, meaning that if the witness cannot understand the questions and if the court cannot understand her answers, the witness’s testimony is not useful evidence – unless there is an interpreter.
Unlike in criminal court, a civil court will not pay for the interpreter if one is needed. (Evid Code 752(b)(2).) The cost of the interpreter is a cost of the lawsuit, just like the cost to file papers with the court and costs associated with depositions, for example. The party that loses the trial, could be you or the other side, may pay the costs. Or, you could pay it if you decide to settle out of court. You may decide it is worth it to settle for various reasons.
It is ultimately up to the court. The court may determine whether or not an interpreter is needed. Suppose you or anyone testifying in court appears to speak and understand the English language well enough to be understood. In that case, the court may determine that no interpreter is needed. However, your lawyers may decide to hire an interpreter regardless of the court’s determination. They want you to be able to provide your best testimony and fully understand what the court asks of you.
Because California is such a diverse state, there are interpreters for many different languages and dialects, including Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hindi, Farsi, Portuguese, even some indigenous languages. Your inability to fully understand the English language should not be a barrier to getting legal representation when you have been wronged.