Navigating the legal system can be tricky enough as it is for native English speakers — for those with limited English proficiency (LEP), it’s an even bigger struggle. 

Luckily, there are rules and regulations in place to provide language access to LEP defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and others involved in the legal system. But while courts must provide LEP folks with an interpreter at no cost to the individual, this is often easier said than done.

From correctly identifying the language an individual speaks to finding an available interpreter in a low-resource language, there are several language access challenges that can hamper the court’s efforts to seek justice. 

Here are six of the most common challenges we’ve identified in our work with courts across the United States, as well as how court systems can work to overcome them.

1.  Awareness of Language Services

Individuals with LEP may not know that language services are available to them for free. If this is the case, this could slow down your court case, as they may have difficulty navigating the legal system in English and may attempt to communicate in English despite struggling to do so effectively.

Upon recognizing that an individual has LEP, inform them that they can work with an interpreter at no cost to them.

It’s also important that the courts make an effort to advertise the fact that language services are available to folks with LEP. Make sure signage is placed in highly visible areas, notifying folks that services are available and how to access them — this signage should be written in multiple languages that are spoken commonly in your jurisdiction. It’s also important to place such notices online as well, so that individuals can access them before they get to the courtroom.

2.  Incorrect Identification of Languages

At times, it can be a challenge to determine what language an LEP individual speaks. While you may be able to figure out their nationality simply by looking at documentation on hand, it’ll take a little bit more work to figure out their preferred language.

For example, while Spanish is the official language in most Central American countries, many immigrants and asylum seekers from these countries speak indigenous languages — that is, you can’t simply assume you’ll need a Spanish interpreter for an LEP individual from, say, Guatemala. If you contract a Spanish-English interpreter for a Q’anjob’al speaker, for example, you could negatively impact the outcome of their case, as they will likely not be able to effectively communicate through the interpreter.

If you can’t easily determine which language somebody speaks by asking them, there are other ways to do so. Language identification cards can be a useful tool to determine which language an individual speaks. It’s also a good idea to identify languages that are in high-demand and how often certain languages are misidentified — this way, you can take a data-oriented approach to language identification.

3.  Interpreter Qualifications

Legal interpreting is a highly specialized field — just because somebody works as an interpreter doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re qualified to interpret in a court setting. Be sure to seek out experienced interpreters who are qualified to interpret in a legal setting.

Checking an individual’s credentials and certifications can be a good start, but note that not all languages have legal interpreting certifications. When seeking out interpreting services, it’s a good idea to keep a reference guide outlining the qualifications needed for different languages and legal situations, which should make it easier for court staff and lawyers to find the right interpreter fast.

4.  Legal Interpreter Availability

Securing qualified interpreters for legal proceedings is essential but can be challenging due to the limited availability of certified professionals. Courts can address this challenge by proactively planning ahead and requesting interpreter services well in advance of scheduled proceedings.

In addition to proactive planning, courts can enhance interpreter availability by establishing partnerships with language service providers. These partnerships can provide access to a consistent pool of qualified interpreters, helping to meet the demand for language services more effectively.

5.  Complicated Court Proceedings

Depending on the details of your court case, you may need to work with more than one interpreter — more complicated proceedings that take up a long period of time may need a team of two or more interpreters. Cases that involve sign language may require one interpreter for the proceeding and another table interpreter, meaning that lengthy cases could require a team of up to four interpreters.

And if the LEP individual speaks an especially uncommon language, you may need to do what’s known as “relay” interpreting — one interpreter will interpret between the LEP individual’s preferred language and a more common language such as Spanish or Chinese, and another will then interpret that into English.

Be sure to communicate as many details of the case as you can to your language service provider, so they can give you an idea of how complex the interpreting services will be. If multiple interpreters are needed, they’ll help you get things sorted out without slowing down the case.

6.  Scheduling Complications

Be careful not to underestimate the amount of time needed — interpreters book their time according to what you’ve requested, so if you request somebody from 12:00 to 2:00, they likely won’t be able to work for you before or after that. If you need the interpreter to work after that period, you run the risk of having to reschedule a second session.

While you may not be able to determine exactly how long an individual case will take, try to be as accurate as you can — we recommend partnering with a language service provider to reduce lead times on securing an interpreter and also to determine realistic cut-off times and thresholds for the interpreters you work with.


While courts are required by law to offer language services to individuals with LEP, there are a few challenges courts must overcome when addressing the linguistic needs of immigrants and other people with LEP.

  • Awareness of Language Services: Make sure LEP individuals know about their right to an interpreter by using multilingual messaging throughout the court and on your website.
  • Incorrect Identification of Languages: Never assume an individual’s preferred language — use language identification cards and a data-based approach to determine what language somebody speaks.
  • Interpreter Qualifications: Make sure your interpreter is qualified to work in the courts; also understand that not every language has interpreting certifications, so work with a language service provider to determine who’s the best fit for a job.
  • Legal Interpreter Availability: Be proactive about securing a legal interpreter well in advance of when you need one.
  • Complicated Court Proceedings: Understand that you may need multiple interpreters depending on the duration of a case.
  • Scheduling Complications: Try to be as accurate as possible when requesting a time for an interpreter to be present.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with any of these challenges — or others — Avantpage is here to help. Our network of highly experienced legal interpreters in more than 250 different languages can help you deliver justice in any language. Contact us today at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.