The Biggest Court Interpreting Problem in SC

As mentioned in previous blogs, South Carolina has a shortage of certified court interpreters, especially in languages other than Spanish (LOTS). Even if approximately two dozen Spanish interpreters were enough, the fact is that they often prefer to turn down assignments. This means that the actual pool of available certified interpreters is a lot less than the already tiny amount of 31 certified court interpreters in South Carolina. SC is a member state of the Council of Language Access Coordinators

This means that the South Carolina courts choose to retain whichever bilingual, otherwise qualified person is available for the assignment. Certified interpreters have passed an oral certification exam which proves they meet the minimum requirements for proficiency (see page 1, ¶3 of the Test Construction Manual). There is no guarantee for what you’ll get with an uncertified interpreter.

Why do many South Carolina certified interpreters feel unmotivated to accept assignments? Also, why are so many other interpreters unmotivated to become certified in the first place? The simple answer is that they aren’t compensated enough for their services. Remember that interpreters are not running a charity; however, they are often treated as though they are.

Here are some answers. South Carolina currently pays $45 an hour for certified (spoken and sign) interpreters.  Many interpreters simply jump the border to North Carolina or Georgia where they can earn $40-$70 per hour (and NC reimburses them for half their travel time at the hourly rate).  

When an interpreter accepts a court assignment in South Carolina, he or she will dress and travel to the court. Interpreters often reject direct, higher-paying offers after accepting that assignment. While everyone is present and ready to perform their tasks, a case settles, and the interpreter is told he is no longer needed and can leave. Everyone in that room, the lawyers, the judge, the court reporter, the bailiff, all of them will be paid. However, the interpreter will be dismissed without compensation. I know many interpreters who refuse court assignments just for this reason alone.  After all, there is a high risk of lost opportunity cost. 

It is true that South Carolina courts do not pay for interpreters travel, wait time or cancellations (South Carolina Court Administration’s Memorandum to County Clerks and Summary Court Judges, February 1, 2013 and Memorandum dated August 24, 2015. It is also true that the March 2015 State of South Carolina Judicial Branch Office of Court Administration Language Access Plan does not mention nonpayment of interpreter travel, wait time, or case cancellations. Judges have little, if any, training on hearing interpreter cases first to eliminate wait time. Additionally, court interpreters also do not have agreements with South Carolina Court Administration (SCCA) to outline what is and is not compensated.  After interpreters have lost gas money and opportunity cost, and been sent out uncompensated, professional interpreters are also not obligated to accept the assignment. It works both ways.

If an interpreter living in Simpsonville is requested in Greenville General Sessions in the morning and Anderson Family Court in the afternoon, SCCA will usually not reimburse travel mileage for Anderson. Yes, that’s right. The interpreter drove 64 round-trip miles out of county and lost $37.12.

Travel time is also not reimbursed. If it takes the interpreter 45 minutes to arrive in Anderson and 45 minutes to return home, that is one and a half hours of travel time. The Greenville assignments lasts one hour and 15 minutes; the Anderson assignment is 30 minutes. The interpreter is compensated for the daily minimum of two hours interpreting but also loses half of the 90-minute travel time. Subtract the nonpayment of 45 minutes travel between courthouses along with no mileage reimbursement, and the true total compensation is just $19.13. Certified interpreter fees are much higher than what the courts pay, just as lawyer fees are much higher than when the judge assigns her to represent an indigent defendant. Certified Spanish interpreters can typically earn $200-$300 for a simple deposition. It is infinitely more profitable to accept any assignment in the private sector than to take on additional, low-paying work at the courts that doesn’t even reimburse travel time and mileage. Therefore, in the interest of gainful employment and self-preservation, interpreters often refuse more court work on the same day. 

Another standard practice in court interpreting is to pay a 24 to 48-hour cancellation fee for the minimum scheduled (PA, CA, NJ, NC, MN). Why? As mentioned previously, once an assignment is accepted, any other work offers must be declined.  Often much more profitable work is turned down because the court assignment was accepted. For this reason, other states pay some type of minimum cancellation fee.  SCCA does not compensate for last-minute cancellations, which influences certified practitioners to develop more reliable, profitable relationships elsewhere.

The final straw:  no parking reimbursement. So far, most or all practicing court interpreters must pay their own parking fees when called or subpoenaed to court. Paying for a parking garage isn’t cheap. When you consider all payment woes and add parking cost, you have yet another reason for interpreters to feel indifferent toward court assignments.

As you can see, the professional service language interpreter budget is the primary problem when it comes to accessing interpreters who meet the minimum standards of competency. Language access is not a vision; it is a necessary judicial expense. Utilizing otherwise qualified interpreters, including those who have proven they cannot pass the court interpreter oral certification examination, does NOT increase language access, but rather offers a false sense of security that actual communication is taking place when it is not. Only certified court interpreters ensure the courts that effective exchange occurs, which comply with equal access to the courts for LEP individuals and South Carolina Anti-Discrimination of Law. The mandate requires the judicial department to be in the business of ensuring effective language access, not presenting warm bodies which give the impression that language access is being provided.

The result is an impaired justice system, reflected by its National Justice Composite index of 30.96/100 (40 out of 51) and a Language Access Index of 24.72/100.  Our international community, brought by large corporations, who has boosted SC’s economy has the real potential to be seriously mistreated because they lack basic access to justice required by South Carolina law.  Is that any way to treat our neighbors?

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there are other issues indirectly linked to budget.  Stay tuned for civil court and team interpreting issues.

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