M E M O R A N D U M
To: Mary Boudreau, Program Manager
From: Brent Johnson, General Counsel
Re: Court Interpreters and Confidentiality
Date: March 22, 2004
Do Canons 5 and 6 prohibit a court interpreter from publicly describing general problems within the justice system that the interpreter observes over time?
An interpreters may provide comment to entities charged with improving the legal system, as long as the interpreter does not discuss specific cases or provide comment from which specific cases can be identified.
According to the facts in support of this opinion request, the issue recently arose following a town hall meeting hosted by the Racial and Ethnic Fairness Commission. The question is whether interpreters may appear before a body such as the Racial and Ethnic Fairness Commission and provide comment about their experiences in the judicial system. I believe that the code allows such appearances and comments, as long as interpreters do not discuss specific cases, or provide information from which specific cases could be identified.
Canon 5 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters requires interpreters to "protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information." Canon 6 states that interpreters "shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential." It is important for court interpreters to promote the integrity and impartiality of court interpreting and of the judicial system as a whole, by strictly maintaining a neutral role regarding the proceedings which they are required to interpret. Interpreters cannot become engaged in discussing specific cases. Public comment about individual cases may affect public perception of the neutral role played by court interpreters.
Canon 10 requires interpreters to "continually improve their skills and knowledge and advance the profession through activities such as professional training and education, and interaction with colleagues, and specialists in related fields." Interpreters have an ethical obligation to improve both their individual skills and their profession as a whole. This latter requirement may involve situations in which an interpreter should raise awareness of areas which require systemic improvement. A way in which this may be done is for interpreters to draw upon their knowledge obtained through court interpreting and to share that information with individuals and entities that can effect systemic change.
In order to balance the obligation of confidentiality and the prohibition against public comment, with the obligation to improve court interpreting within the justice system, I believe that the code allows interpreters to speak before bodies who are charged with studying and improving court interpreting and the judicial system. Court interpreters may provide their comments and expertise to these bodies as long as they do so in a manner in which individual cases are not and cannot be identified. An interpreter can speak about perceived problems in a general manner.
This balance is similar to the one created for other members of the judicial system. For example, judges and court employees (who have similar obligations of impartiality) are prohibited from commenting about pending cases, but can speak to public boards and commissions concerned with the administration of justice and the improvement of the law and the legal system, so long as they do not comment on pending cases.
In conclusion, I believe that the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters allows interpreters to speak before entities that are charged with studying and improving interpreting in the judicial system. This allows interpreters to assist in improving the legal system. Interpreters should not identify specific cases, and their comments to these entities should be framed in a way that individual cases cannot be identified. If you have any questions about this, please let me know.