Justice, Language Access, and the Interpreter: Court Interpreter Certification Program Well Underway in Illinois
By Sasha Federiuk Carrillo, MATI Board Member
It is an exciting time for legal interpreters in the State of Illinois. At the end of October, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) concluded its first round of two-day orientations for aspiring court interpreters in the state. Experienced professional court interpreter trainers such as Agustín de la Mora, Patricia Michelsen-King, Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner and Tony Rosado facilitated a total of four orientations, which were held in Chicago, Springfield, and Grayslake. Over 190 interpreters were in attendance, representing a variety of language pairs. Later, many of these interpreters participated in the first written exam cycle that ended in mid-January.
The AOIC will finish its first round of oral exam administration in March, with plans to offer the orientation, written exam, and oral exam several times per year. The Illinois court interpreter registry is already available online, and interpreters who have earned their court interpreting credentials or certification in other states have started to apply for reciprocity in Illinois.
The State of Illinois has been a member of the well-recognized organization National Center for State Courts (NCSC) since 1998. Still, it only recently began administering the NCSC’s vetted and nationally-recognized written and oral testing program to certify court interpreters. To take part in the exciting process of becoming court-certified, interpreters no longer need to travel to neighboring states such as Wisconsin and Indiana.
Like many other interpreters, I wanted to better understand the roots of language access efforts in Illinois, what prompted the launch of a court interpreter certification program there, and to further explore why court interpreters in the state should participate in the certification program. With this objective in mind, I navigated through the wealth of resources available on the AOIC website and on January 22nd, interviewed Sophia Akbar, Language Access Services Specialist, who has worked tirelessly to further the AOIC’s initiatives for language access within Illinois courts. In this article, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look into the creation of the Illinois’ Supreme Court Language Access Policy, which served as the launching point for the statewide interpreter certification program.
More than just interpreter certification—access to justice
The implementation of the court interpreter certification program in Illinois, although important, is only one of various strides made by the courts toward ensuring equal access to justice for all people in Illinois. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Illinois created the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice. Later, in January of 2014, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts’ (AOIC) Civil Justice Division was formed, to partner with and support the work of the Commission. The objective of the AOIC Civil Justice Division, according to the Illinois courts’ website, is “to help the legal system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all court users, particularly to those who are low-income and vulnerable. This work is informed by the principles of eliminating barriers that prevent people from understanding and exercising their legal rights, ensuring fair outcomes for all parties and increasing efficiencies to avoid waste and duplication.”
It makes sense, then, that beyond the division’s oversight of statewide standardized forms, development of training materials and education programs for courts, and expansion of statewide civil justice data collection, it also provides language access-related resources and support to the courts in order to help overcome language barriers and improve interpreter services.
Creation of the Statewide Language Access Policy
In September 2013, Sophia Akbar, who has a background in legal advocacy and policy, began her important work with the AOIC. Akbar, bilingual herself, is “passionate about ensuring equal access to the justice system” and has a “personal appreciation for the struggles that people face” within diverse communities. The AOIC’s first undertaking was to oversee the creation and adoption of a Supreme Court Language Access Policy, which would later serve to identify the broad scope of individuals eligible to receive interpreter services, establish a tiered certification system for court interpreters and provide standardized guidance to promote language access in Illinois courts statewide.
The process of drafting and approving this Policy did not come without its challenges. The document went through numerous drafts, and was passed from the Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice to the AOIC for further additions and edits. When the document reached its final draft, the Supreme Court was prepared to adopt the document in principle, but wanted the support of the Chief Circuit Judges prior to doing so. Akbar explained that this was an important step in increasing awareness of the Policy’s contents among the judiciary and streamlining the implementation process. The AOIC’s next move was a step not undertaken by many other states in which Language Access Policies have been enacted—the AOIC brought the Language Access Policy to the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges.
The Conference of Chief Circuit Judges is a group comprised of Chief Circuit Judges from the state’s twenty-four judicial circuit courts that meets regularly to discuss administrative matters related to the circuit courts. Approaching this Conference with the Language Access Policy was a meaningful step to ensure buy-in from judges across the state for access to interpreter services, while also revealing the challenge of changing court culture. After all, circuit courts would need to re-evaluate their resources and budgets in order to support the implementation of the new policy. Bringing the plan to the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges ensured that philosophically, everyone would be on the same page. Akbar explained, “The funding issue is very real [within the courts]. A lot of courts are struggling in very real ways. Some courts require litigants to provide their own paper copies, some courts have no telephone lines in the courtroom. There are circuits that receive $900 per year from their County Boards as a budget for providing interpreter services. One potential way for courts to increase awareness among County Boards is to collect data about interpreter requests and present that data to illustrate their need for language access services and justify [more funding]”.
In the current fiscal year, the AOIC is offering reimbursement to circuit courts at a fixed rate for utilizing the services of interpreters who appear on the statewide interpreter registry: $30 per hour toward services provided by “registered” interpreters, and $40 per hour toward the services of “certified” foreign language interpreters and sign language interpreters. In addition, the AOIC helps courts offset costs incurred for interpreter travel charges, because rural counties in particular have difficulties locating interpreters nearby.
Interpreter Certification Program
The courts and Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals are not the only groups who benefit from having access to qualified professional court interpreters. Interpreters themselves have much to gain by earning their professional credentials through the court interpreter certification program. Upon meeting the requirements defined by the AOIC, interpreters appear on the statewide interpreter registry, which serves as a resource for courts and various agencies to locate and hire well-qualified freelance interpreters. As a result, interpreters gain visibility and may be called upon to provide services more frequently. Although it is too early to determine the definite effects of certification within the state, the consensus among interpreters across the nation is that interpreter certification serves to bolster our professionalism, and may serve to provide us with more leverage during wage negotiations with clients and agencies.
The AOIC website provides detailed information about how to appear on the statewide interpreter registry. Interpreters who have already earned certification through a member state of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) simply submit an application for reciprocity. For all others, the process is as follows: the interpreter pays a fee of $200 and attends a mandatory two-day orientation. Later, she/he must pay a fee of $50 to sit for a 135-question, three-part examination. Interpreters who successfully complete this written exam are included on the statewide registry of interpreters. Full certification is not achieved until the interpreter has successfully completed the applicable oral examination for their language pairs, which costs between $170-$200, depending on the language.
It is time for interpreters to reap the rewards of becoming certified. In doing so, they will not only support access to justice for Limited English Proficient individuals within the state, they will further their careers and contribute to the professionalism of our industry as a whole.
To learn more about the Illinois court interpreter certification program, visit the AOIC website.
"Administrative Office Divisions - Civil Justice." Administrative Office of the IL Courts. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. <http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/Administrative/CivilJustice.asp>
"Illinois (joined 1998) | National Center for State Courts." Illinois (joined 1998) | National Center for State Courts. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://www.ncsc.org/Services-and-Experts/Areas-of-expertise/Language-access/Resources-for-Program-Managers/LAP-Map/Illinois.aspx>
"Illinois Circuit Court General Information." Illinois Circuit Court General Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. <http://www.state.il.us/court/CircuitCourt/CCInfoDefault.asp>
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"Sophia Akbar, Language Access Services Specialist, AOIC." Telephone interview. 22 Jan. 2015.
"Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice." Access to Justice. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/CivilJustice/AccessToJustice.asp>