Do You Have The Right To An Interpreter In A Criminal Proceeding?

Navigating the legal system can be challenging for anyone whose courtroom experience is limited to television dramas or "reality judge" shows -- but for those who don't speak or understand English well, these challenges can often seem insurmountable. If you've found yourself facing criminal misdemeanor or felony charges and are unable to effectively communicate in English, you may have the right to an interpreter to help. Read on to learn more about your language access rights when being sued in civil court. 

Do you have the right to an interpreter in a criminal case?

This is an area of law that has been subject to much recent litigation as the need for language access increases. In 2010, the Georgia Supreme Court held that defendants with limited English proficiency (LEP) had the constitutional right to an interpreter at public cost, just as they had the right to an attorney if they could not afford one. Both the ability to understand the proceedings against you and the ability to competently defend yourself are safeguarded rights under the Constitution, and those who cannot afford a private attorney (or private interpreter) should be provided one. 

Other state supreme courts have issued similar opinions, in many cases striking down lower court rulings that would require the litigant to pay the cost of an interpreter or deny these services entirely. Being denied the ability to understand the criminal proceedings against you is a fundamental due process violation that should be swiftly resolved.

What are your options if you're in need of language services during a court proceeding? 

If you feel you need an interpreter, it's important to make this request on the record as soon as you can -- making your request on the eve of trial (or sentencing) could be seen by the court as an effort to delay the proceedings. 

If you request an interpreter and the judge indicates you should enlist a friend or family member instead, you have the right to decline this request; because it's crucial for the words the judge and attorneys are saying to be translated accurately and completely, relying on friends or family members without any legal background to translate and interpret legal argument can lead to inaccurate results. You have the right to request that the court appoint a state-certified interpreter instead. 

You also have the right to refuse to participate in proceedings until an interpreter is appointed. Because you need to be fully aware of your rights in order to waive them, being pressured to make decisions (like taking a plea deal) before an interpreter has clearly translated your options can be seen as coercion and may be enough to overturn any criminal conviction that could be handed down. For more information, contact companies like the Language Banc.