On a given morning in District of Columbia Superior Court, the soft voices of language interpreters can be heard just below the back-and-forth of judges, lawyers and litigants. Those voices have grown louder in recent years — figuratively, that is — according to court statistics.

During 2012, more than 8,700 local court proceedings required a foreign or sign language interpreter, compared with about 5,700 in 2002. Although last year’s figure wasn’t as high as the 10,000-plus court events that required interpreters during 2009 and 2010, it did include an all-time high for proceedings involving foreign languages other than Spanish — close to 1,200.

Local attorneys credit court officials for making impressive strides in accessibility for foreign language speakers, including those who speak less common languages. James Plunkett III, a federally certified Spanish interpreter who has been with the court since 2001 and who has led the Office of Court Interpreting Services since 2009, is widely praised for pushing reforms.

John Machado, a solo practitioner and criminal defense lawyer, said that when he started practicing in Superior Court in the 1990s, judges would have to postpone hearings because there were no interpreters available on a particular day. "I haven’t had that happen for years. That’s definitely been a great improvement," he said.

Complaints do persist, however, especially concerning resources for unrepresented litigants. Allison Miles-Lee, a staff attorney at Bread for the City who handles cases in family court, said her Spanish-speaking clients have had trouble figuring out where to go and what to do before connecting with a lawyer, especially in cases that touched on family law and domestic violence, which are handled in separate divisions. "Certain areas are more accessible than others," she said.

Plunkett said his office is "slowly but surely" translating court forms and other written information. Brochures provide basic information in nine languages; in the domestic violence section, he said, litigants can now get temporary protection order forms in at least a half-dozen languages. "I’m very fortunate that the D.C. courts…are very aware of trying to communicate with people who don’t handle English very well," he said.

FROM KOREA TO ERITREA

Spanish has always been the dominant language for interpreter services in Superior Court, according to court records. The number of proceedings requiring a Spanish-language interpreter has steadily crept up — with a few exceptions — from 4,421 in 2002 to 6,577 last year; the figures jumped above 8,000 in 2009 and 2010.

In a trend that tracks regional demographic changes, the court has also seen a rise in demand for interpreters in new foreign languages. In 2002, 465 court events required an interpreter in a language other than Spanish. Last year, there were 1,197 proceedings — an increase of more than 150 percent. The city’s proportion of non-Spanish language speakers went up during that same period, according to U.S. census data. Between 2000 and 2011, non-Spanish speakers went from comprising less than half of foreign language speakers in D.C. to more than half.

The court relies heavily on contractors for interpreter services. Besides Plunkett, there are two other court staff interpreters who are federally certified as Spanish interpreters. Beyond that, Plunkett said, the court draws from a list of about 150 freelancers to fulfill requests for approximately 40 languages.

After Spanish and sign language, Plunkett said, top interpretation requests include Amharic — the region has a sizeable Ethiopian population — Vietnamese, Mandarin, Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia), Korean and French.

The court prefers interpreters with federal or state certification, but that’s not always possible, particularly for less common languages, Plunkett said. Absent certification, interpreters must pass a court-administered competency exam. The court has spent about $1 million annually on interpreter contractors in recent years.

Hailu Gtsadek, managing partner of D.C.-based African Translation LLC, which specializes in placing interpreters for less common languages, said that Superior Court judges are more attuned to working with interpreters than are other jurisdictions in the region. "It’s like day and night," he said.

Foreign language speakers often are unaware of available resources, however. "Most of the time, it’s the judge or the attorney who notices a language barrier," Gtsadek said. "Most immigrants that I run into, they don’t even know that they have that right."

ADOPTING NEW STANDARDS

Court officials nationwide began paying more attention to language access during the 1990s, said Delaware State Court Administrator Patricia Griffin, chairwoman of the Conference of State Court Administrators’ Language Access Advisory Committee. Demographic shifts, especially the growth of Spanish-speaking populations, meant that judges had to confront whether litigants who spoke other languages could get representation and access courthouses, she said.

The American Bar Association adopted new language access standards last year as a guide for courts, the culmination of a yearslong effort led by District of Columbia Court of Appeals Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz.

Language access has long been ingrained in court functions, Plunkett said. All new judges go through training, for instance. Judges "are very careful about the needs and they want to make sure all the bases are covered," he said. "They conduct a voir dire of core participants’ ability to participate in English, and they can call an interpreter immediately."

Still, courthouse culture can prove challenging for foreign language speakers, said Jeannine Winch, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Even though interpreters are almost always available for a host of languages, many signs and informal announcements — when litigants should check in with a clerk, for instance — are in English, she said.

Bread for the City’s Miles-Lee said litigants who need an interpreter sometimes have to wait longer to have their case called. "I feel bad for my clients. Just by virtue of being Spanish speakers, they’re waiting three hours…where other people would wait one hour." She acknowledged, though, that securing interpreters can cause delays, even within her own organization. "It’s never going to be exactly equal access to services when you’re relying on interpreters," she said.

Plunkett said that his office can’t always meet requests right away but, when interpreters are prescheduled, they have a 97.5 percent response rate. On the "rare occasion" an interpreter isn’t available, he said, parties can use a telephone interpreting service.

Gillian Chadwick, supervising attorney at Ayuda, a local multilingual legal services provider, credited the court with making progress but warned that any language barrier carried significant due-process concerns. "These are fundamental rights we’re talking about," she said. "It’s kind of scary there are any language gaps at all."

Zoe Tillman can be contacted at ztillman@alm.com.