For individuals who are limited English proficient (LEP) or Deaf/hard-of-hearing  and need to participate in a court hearing, they have the right to an interpreter in federal, state, and local courts. An interpreter is required to protect one’s basic constitutional rights by providing equal language access.

A legal interpreter plays an extremely important role in the court process, as the interpreter is the conduit between the individual and the English speakers. An interpreter must interpret the content without editing, summarizing, deleting or otherwise modifying the content. They must be impartial and able to serve the judicial process as required.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of the legal interpreter qualifications and requirements used in the legal system.

Federal Legal Interpreters

The federal government recognizes three types of legal interpreters.

Federally Certified Legal Interpreter

A federally certified interpreter has passed the Administrative Office certification exam. These exams are only available for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole interpreters. The local federal court will determine if an interpreter is professionally qualified or has the language skills for other languages.

Professionally Qualified Legal Interpreter

This designation is for all languages except Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole. A professionally qualified interpreter meets the criteria for this designation. The criteria consider areas like tests and assessments, memberships, and other certifications.

Language Skilled / Ad Hoc Legal Interpreters

A language skilled / ad hoc interpreter demonstrates the ability to interpret court proceedings per the court’s satisfaction but isn’t a professionally qualified interpreter. While using a language skilled / ad hoc interpreter is not always appropriate, it may be acceptable in some cases.

State Legal Interpreters

Each state has its own legal interpreter requirements. As an example, the state of California recognizes two types of interpreters:

  1. Certified court interpreters – these interpreters have passed a written exam and a bilingual interpreting exam. The bilingual exam is available in 13 languages. Certified interpreters have also registered with the Judicial Council Interpreters in California.
  2. Registered court interpreters – these interpreters interpret for languages other than the 13 that are covered by the certification.

Review language access programs by state.

Local and National Organizations and Agencies

Local and national organizations, such as National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) may provide other labels for legal interpreters such as “conditionally approved” or “qualified.” These terms can vary a bit, but they essentially mean individuals pre-vetted by organizations, agencies, departments or otherwise based on references, skills assessments, previous work history, an association with industry organizations, and more.

American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters

While hundreds of sign languages exist, American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most common types in the U.S. Currently, there’s a shortage of ASL interpreters, and some certifications can’t be tested for anymore. Nationally recognized certifications include:

  • National Interpreter Certification (NIC) and Certified Deaf Certification (CDI) – Issued by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (RID). NIC is the only current nationally issued certification due to a moratorium on certifications in 2016. Other certifications issued through RID are sometimes still recognized.
  • Other RID certifications are listed here and are fully recognized, but the exams are no longer available.
  • Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC:L) certifies that the interpreter has been trained and certified in legal interpreting. This certificate was placed under the moratorium in 2016 and is still in limbo but is fully recognized by current holders.
  • Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) – A CDI interpreter is a deaf or hard-of-hearing interpreter who has been trained in a highly specialized path and is teamed with hearing interpreters.
  • National Association of the Deaf (NAD) certifications – These certifications are recognized by RID.

Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART)

CART, also known as real-time captioning, is a method of transcribing spoken language and sounds. The transcription is displayed on computers, mobile devices or other screens. Those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing might prefer this method. LEP individuals may also choose this method over interpreting for various reasons. CART requires reading, and it’s often a one-way communication, although some versions can incorporate two-way communication. Specialists who provide CART services can hold certifications from the Association for Court Reporters and Captioners.

Organizations that Support Interpreters and Translators

Organizations that control assessments, codes of ethics, codes of professional conduct, and more to evaluate interpreter involvement include:


Legal interpreters have a very important job communicating between LEP, deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. Legal interpreting is a highly specialized form of interpreting that not just anyone can do. As such, courts may require certain qualifications or a judge may inquire about qualifications, and may come up when a court case is challenged due to the interpretation, such as appeals on verdicts called into question due to the provided interpretation.

We provide remote and in-person interpretation services for the legal industry. We partner with the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, and we’ve worked with numerous state Superior Courts as well as Judicial Councils. To learn more, contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.