If you’ve ever been in a courtroom, you know that all that legal jargon can sometimes sound like a different language. But what if it actually is? More than 60 million people in the United States speak a language other than English, and these people may not get a fair trial simply due to language barriers.
As a country that prides itself on dispensing justice fairly, this is a major problem. The U.S. Department of Justice has required states to provide interpretation services for criminal cases for decades, but only recently has the requirement been extended to noncriminal cases in civil, family, probate and juvenile courts.
Financial Concerns Crop Up
While great news for justice, the new requirement means courts can face the daunting prospect of triple or quadruple the number of cases requiring an interpreter. Metropolitan counties generally employ full-time interpreters for commonly spoken languages, but rely on contractors for other languages. Smaller counties typically use contractors for all cases.
Contractors usually charge by the hour and have minimum time commitments, so scaling up to meet the new requirements by using this approach is incredibly costly. For criminal cases alone, interpretation costs can amount to hundreds of thousands annually for large metropolitan courts.
Bridging the Distance
How do we guarantee all Americans their right to a fair trial without placing an undue financial burden on our court system? Telepresence offers one solution. Interpreters can appear immediately in a video conferencing session, which prevents delays due to an interpreter’s travel. This helps reduce travel costs and on-the-clock fees.
Additionally, a court system can create a central pool of interpreters with specialized languages, improving access to underserved groups and utilizing budgets more effectively. Because today’s telepresence technology is so advanced, users don’t lose the benefits of in-person interpretation. With high-definition video, participants can see each other’s facial expressions, which can help the interpreter speed up or slow down to make sure everyone can understand him. And unlike phone translation, video translation can provide services to a particularly underserved population: those needing support for American Sign Language.
We’ve seen just how successful video interpretation can be. The Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida has used video conferencing to save nearly $200,000 per year. Instead of sending interpreters all around the state, the court conducts video conferencing sessions. It can easily and inexpensively translate cases in Creole, Russian, Spanish and other languages. The program has been so successful that it’s now used in 11 courtrooms across six different circuits, with more getting ready to deploy the technology.
The right to a fair trial is one of the main tenets of the American judicial system, and courts should never have to reconcile budget challenges with interpretation needs to provide that right. Video interpretation can help avoid skyrocketing costs and judicial delays due to travel, making sure that when it comes to justice, nothing gets lost in translation.