The Los Angeles County Superior Court has begun expanding access to free interpreter services for those with limited English skills in some civil cases, seeking to address a gap in language services that federal authorities say violates the Civil Rights Act.
The court has started providing translators at no cost for those involved in eviction, guardianship and conservatorship cases, a service previously only available to low-income litigants.
Unlike in criminal court, people in civil cases do not have a constitutional right to an interpreter, making navigating the court system exceedingly difficult for many, said Joann H. Lee, directing attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
"We think it's a great step toward full implementation, and L.A. County seems to be really leading the effort statewide," Lee said.
About a third of California's nearly 7 million limited-English speakers reside in Los Angeles County.
L.A. County Superior Court, the largest single unified trial court in the country with 38 courthouses, employs 388 certified interpreters and contracts with about 290 more to serve about 86 languages. The expansion addresses the types of cases of greatest importance to the livelihood of litigants, said Carolyn B. Kuhl, the court's presiding judge.
"This is a significant expansion, and we're very proud to be able to do it," she said.
More than half of residents in Los Angeles County speak a language other than English at home, and there are about 225 identified languages in the county.
A U.S. Department of Justice report in 2013 found that L.A. County and the state's Judicial Council were in violation of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act for failing to provide language services for those who need them in civil cases.
Federal officials said free language services must be made available in all court proceedings. The federal investigation found that Los Angeles' courts were allowing potentially unqualified family and friends to interpret and that the state did not use about $8 million in funding for translators.
The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles on behalf of two low-income clients. One had been sexually assaulted and sought a restraining order against her attacker; the other was in a custody and child support proceeding for her son. Both were denied Korean interpreters.
A failure to remedy the issues could result in federal intervention, the Justice Department report warned.
In May, the court began offering interpreters to low-income litigants in eviction, conservatorship and guardianship cases. The court also provides interpreters in criminal, juvenile delinquency, juvenile dependency, mental health, domestic violence, elder abuse and traffic matters at no cost.
Though the expansion in Los Angeles goes further than other state courts, litigants in other areas of civil court, like personal injury and debt collection, for instance, remain without translation services.
The court will monitor the expansion for about six months while assessing if services to other areas could be added, Kuhl said.