Bethany Krajelis Oct. 31, 2014, 12:56pm

Court interpreters will have to attend a two-day orientation if they want to be placed on a statewide registry under a new certification program the Illinois Supreme Court announced today.

The program aims to enhance access to the state’s courts for those with limited English proficiency, as well as those hard of hearing, and verify that court interpreters can meet standards designed to ensure they are providing competent services, according to the high court.

"When a litigant or witness cannot understand and fully participate in a legal proceeding due to a language barrier, true access to justice is denied,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita B. Garman said in the release. “The certification program that we announce today will ensure that competent, ethical, and reliable interpreter services are available in our courtrooms so that parties and witnesses may fully realize the benefits of our system of justice."

The program will require all court interpreters -- including those currently working as staff interpreters in Illinois courts – to attend a two-day orientation if they want their names to make it on a statewide registry, which will only include “certified” or “registered” interpreters.

In order to earn the “registered” title, interpreters must attend the orientation and pass a written exam administered by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Those seeking to become “certified” must not only attend the orientation and pass the written exam, but will also have to pass the NCSC’s oral exam, as well as a criminal background check.

The orientation will include training on a variety of interpreter and ethical skills, as well as lessons on legal terminology and the state’s judicial system. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) has been tasked with developing the training and uniform testing standards for the program.

"The overarching goal of this certification program is to develop and maintain a sufficient listing of certified interpreters to provide Illinois courts with a competent and reliable interpreter program statewide," AOIC Director Michael J. Tardy said in the court’s release. "Access to justice in Illinois courts demands complete competency for those tasked with interpreting in criminal and civil court proceedings."

The AOIC already has a list of about 450 foreign language and American Sign Language interpreters, but it does not detail their skills or qualifications. Under the new program, interpreters will be deemed “uncertified,” “certified” or “registered,” the latter two of which will make the list.

Sign language interpreters with proof of federal or state certification licensed to interpret with the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission (IDHHC) will also be placed on the list. Those already certified through IDHHC won’t be required to go through the AOIC’s testing.

In addition, foreign language interpreters who have passed the test for federal courts or the NCSC exams administered in other states will also be put on the registry, as long as they undergo a criminal background check as required by the AOIC.

Results of background check will then be reviewed by an Advisory Board consisting of AOIC staff and a pair of retired judges, according to the court’s release, which notes the same board will review allegations of interpreter misconduct and ethical violations.

The Supreme Court approved a template for a Language Access Plan in June 2013, about a year after it established the Commission on Access to Justice, which explored variety of ways to improve access to the courts and created the plan. That commission has since evolved into the AOIC's Civil Justice Division.

While the model plan stresses the importance of ridding language barriers from the justice system, the court's release notes that each judicial circuit will have to prepare its own Language Access Plan to address its own needs, resources, procedures and goals.

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