How do you ask for a court interpreter? Do you have to pay?

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Updated June 2021 - Available as a podcast!

Going to court is intimidating enough if you’re a witness, you’re involved in a family court case, or you’re accused of a crime. Imagine how bewildering it is if you don’t understand or speak English! Spoken-language court interpreters are available, in some cases without charge. How do you ask for an interpreter, and when do you have to pay for one?

This eNews answers these and other questions about getting the help of a court interpreter if you don’t speak or understand English well, or if you’re deaf or hard of hearing. We hope the information will be shared with people who need it.

What do court interpreters do?

Court interpreters make sure that people involved in a court process who have trouble understanding or speaking English, or deaf and hard of hearing persons, can understand court proceedings. They also make sure any testimony that person may give can be understood by those in the courtroom who speak English.

Spoken Language Interpreters

This kind of court interpreter translates everything the judge, lawyers, witnesses and others say during a court proceeding into the language of the person they’re helping. When that person speaks in their own language, the interpreter translates whatever they say into English.

Usually, the interpreter will sit beside the person to listen and interpret – either by whispering while a speaker speaks, or by translating a sentence or two aloud when the speaker pauses. Sometimes, they will use a microphone and headset.

Visual Language Interpreters

American Sign Language (ASL) is used to interpret for individuals with hearing loss who understand and use sign language. The interpreter will sit or stand where the person can see them and interpret everything said in the courtroom.

A person with a hearing loss who does not use or understand visual sign language can request Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART). With CART, someone transcribes what is being said in court as it is said, and it appears on a computer monitor for the client to read (equivalent to closed captioning on a television).

When does the Court Services Branch of the BC Ministry of the Attorney General provide an interpreter without charge?

The BC Ministry of the Attorney General's Court Services Branch is responsible for the operation of our courthouses. It provides free spoken-language interpreters for witnesses and participants who do not speak English in these types of court proceedings:

  • Provincial and Supreme Court criminal adult and youth cases
  • Family cases in Provincial Court
  • Traffic court cases
  • Municipal bylaw cases

The Court Services Branch also provides free visual language interpretation for people who are deaf or hard of hearing in all types of proceedings.

How do I ask for an interpreter?

If you have a lawyer handling your case, tell them if you or a witness need an interpreter. They will make the arrangements.

If you are:

  • involved in family court, traffic court, or municipal bylaw proceedings;
  • don’t have a lawyer; and
  • need an interpreter or will be calling a witness who needs an interpreter

ask the clerk at your local court registry to arrange for an interpreter when you file your application for a court order. You can also tell a judge or judicial case manager that you’ll need an interpreter when you are setting a date for a trial or hearing.

If you are a witness in a criminal trial, tell the Crown or defence lawyer who is calling you as a witness that you need an interpreter. They will make the arrangements.

It is important to let court registry staff know as soon as possible that you need an interpreter. If they cannot arrange an interpreter in time, the judge may have to re-schedule your case.

If you have requested an interpreter who will not be needed, it is also important to tell the court registry as soon as possible!

Find contact information for your local court registry.

Court Services only provides interpreters when you are in the courtroom

An interpreter provided by the Court Services Branch will be with you during the court hearing to interpret anything said in the courtroom. However, you must find your own interpreter for most things that go on outside the courtroom. For example, you may need an interpreter to help you:

  • talk with court staff
  • fill out an application for a court order
  • meet with a lawyer

Many people ask a friend or family member to interpret for them in these situations. Some people hire a professional interpreter. See resources for finding an interpreter later in this article.

However, the Family Justice Services Division of the Ministry of The Attorney General may provide an interpreter for meetings with a Family Justice Counsellor or other meetings arranged through a Family Justice Centre or a Justice Access Centre.

What if I need an interpreter for a Small Claims case?

The Court Services Branch does not provide language interpreters for Provincial Court Small Claims cases. A judge may allow a family member or friend to help you in settlement conferences, provided they will not be a witness, are not involved in the dispute, and their presence will not be disruptive. However, you must hire a professional interpreter for a Small Claims trial.

Professional court interpreting takes special skills – including knowledge of legal terms and the ability to choose words that match the speaker’s language level and tone. Interpreters must swear an oath or affirm that they will truly and correctly interpret the evidence and proceedings in court to the best of their skills and ability, and family and friends don’t have the necessary skills or objectivity to do that in a trial.

How do I find a professional interpreter?

Court registries are not able to recommend interpreters, although they may be able to show you a list of professional interpreters working in your area.

Get help finding a professional interpreter from:

Other special needs requests

Newer courthouses are wheelchair accessible, but if you require wheelchair access or other special accommodation, mention it before your court appearance to your lawyer, the court registry, courthouse sheriff or victim services, to be sure the court facilities meet your needs.

Multi-cultural legal information

You can get Information about court matters in various languages from:

  • Multicultural organizations – offer information and may help you find a professional interpreter.
  • Your local library – information about multicultural groups and booklets on the law in various languages.
  • Clicklaw - links to legal information in languages including: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Persian), French, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
  • MOSAIC Multilingual Legal Publications - legal information resources in: Arabic, Chinese, French, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
  • Court Information Program for Immigrants - free legal information and referrals to new immigrants and refugees in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Punjabi, Hindi and Spanish. Phone 604 760-5727 or 1-866-550-2474.
  • - free legal information for newcomers to Canada and people working with them.
  • Ministry of the Attorney General website