JARA v. COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES

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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 4, California.

Aurelio Fregoso JARA, Petitioner and Appellant, v. MUNICIPAL COURT OF SAN ANTONIO JUDICIAL DISTRICT, Respondent; The COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES and Le Roy Bell, Real Parties in Interest.

Civ. 49245.

Decided: March 30, 1977

Southeast Legal Aid Center by Dawn R. Scott, Los Angeles, for petitioner and appellant. John H. Larson, County Counsel, David B. Kelsey and Jeffrey M. Hausman, Deputy County Counsels, Los Angeles, for respondent and for real party in interest County of Los Angeles.

On February 14, 1974, one LeRoy Bell filed an action against petitioner Aurelio Fregoso Jara in the Municipal Court of San Antonio Judicial District. Bell sought damages in the sum of $1,277.09 for property damages arising out of an automobile accident occurring on January 16, 1973. Jara filed an answer and cross-complaint to the Bell action.

In the municipal court, Jara filed a motion requesting the court to appoint, without expense to him, for the upcoming trial, an interpreter who was skilled in Spanish and English. Jara set forth in his motion that he was unable either to speak or understand English, that he was indigent and unable to bear the expense of an interpreter. The municipal court denied Jara's motion on the ground that the court had no inherent or statutory power to appoint an interpreter at the expense of Los Angeles County.

Thereafter, petitioner Jara filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the municipal court to provide the requested interpreter. The alternative writ was issued by the superior court and respondent municipal court filed a return and answer. After a hearing, the superior court denied the petition, made findings of fact and conclusions of law, and entered a judgment denying relief to petitioner Jara. Petitioner Jara has appealed from this judgment. As a part of its findings of fact and conclusions of law, the superior court found and concluded that petitioner had made an adequate showing of indigency.

On this appeal petitioner Jara makes the following contentions: (1) that a trial court is compelled, by statutory and decisional law, to appoint an interpreter for a civilcase litigant who does not speak or understand English; (2) that the constitutional requirements of due process of law and equal protection of the laws mandate the appointment of an interpreter for a litigant in a civil case who does not speak or understand the English language; and (3) that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse to appoint an interpreter for petitioner at county expense.

In opposing the contentions of petitioner Jara, respondent Municipal Court of San Antonio Judicial District, and the County of Los Angeles, which, along with Bell, is a real party in interest, do not take issue with the superior court's finding of indigency as to petitioner, defendant in the municipal court action.

Although petitioner has posed the issue raised—as the right of a civil litigant who does not understand English—to the appointment of an interpreter, the litigant involved in the case at bench is a defendant in a civil action. Accordingly, we limit our consideration to the rights of a civil-action defendant—not the rights of a plaintiff civil-action litigant.

DOES CALIFORNIA STATUTORY AND DECISIONAL LAW MANDATE THE APPOINTMENT OF AN INTERPRETER, AT PUBLIC EXPENSE, FOR AN INDIGENT DEFENDANT IN A CIVIL ACTION WHO DOES NOT UNDERSTAND OR SPEAK ENGLISH?

One contention of petitioner Jara is that the trial court is mandated by California statutory and decisional law to appoint an interpreter, at public expense, for an indigent civil-litigant defendant who does not understand or speak English. Reliance for this contention is placed on cases such as Hilbert v. Kundicoff (1928) 204 Cal. 485, 268 P. 905 and People v. Walker (1924) 69 Cal.App. 475, 231 P. 572. Both Hilbert and Walker dealt with section 1884 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which provided that ‘[w]hen a witness does not understand and speak the English language, an interpreter must be sworn to interpret for him.’ (Emphasis added.) Walker points out that ‘[t]his enactment, however, is not exclusive, as it is undoubtedly the rule not only that courts of general jurisdiction have inherent power to swear interpreters whenever such a course is necessary to the due administration of justice [citations], but that the power may be exercised to supplement existing statutes the provisions of which do not extend to all cases in which such a necessity appears [citations].’ (Walker, supra, 69 Cal.App. 475, at p. 486, 231 P. 572, at p. 577.)

Code of Civil Procedure section 1884 has been superseded by Evidence Code section 752. Subsection (a) of section 752 provides: ‘When a witness is incapable of hearing or understanding the English language or is incapable of expressing himself in the English language so as to be understood directly by counsel, court, and jury, an interpreter whom he can understand and who can understand him shall be sworn to interpret for him.’ (Emphasis added.)

Both former section 1884 of the Code of Civil Procedure and present section 752, subsection (a), of the Evidence Code, relate to the appointment of an interpreter for a witness who does not speak or understand English. There is no present statute which specifically requires the appointment of an interpreter for a civil litigant—plaintiff or defendant—who does not speak or understand the English language.

Petitioner, however, calls our attention to judicial decisions which relate to the financial problems of civil litigants as distinguished from the subject matter of witnesses who have a need for interpreters. Ferguson v. Keays (1971) 4 Cal.3d 649, 94 Cal.Rptr. 398, 484 P.2d 70, is one of these cases. Ferguson, however, is very limited in its actual holding. The holding of Ferguson is limited to the principle that an appellate court has an inherent power to waive the requirement of filing fees to accommodate indigent civil litigants. Ferguson states that such power ‘may be exercised in the absence of statutory provisions to the contrary, . . .’ (Ferguson, supra, 4 Cal.3d 649, at p. 654, 94 Cal.Rptr. 398, at pp. 400–401, 484 P.2d 70, at pp. 72–73.) (Emphasis added.) The Ferguson court points out that it does not deal with the question of ‘whether indigents must be given funds by the county or some other source in order to pay transcript fees, publication costs, or other similar third-party charges.’ (Id. at p. 654, 94 Cal.Rptr. at p. 400, 484 P.2d at p. 72.)

In spite of its limited holding, Ferguson is nevertheless significant in that it points out that the question of third-person charges was involved in the underlying cases which led to the writ of mandate matter presented to the Ferguson court. One of the underlying cases in Ferguson sought payment from the county of fees for publishing summons in the petitioner's action for marital dissolution. In one of the other underlying cases, the petitioner sought payment for a transcript of trial proceedings for use on appeal. The trial court proceedings had led to an order denying modification of child support payments.

In view of the fact that the only question presented in Ferguson related to the inherent power of an appellate court to waive its filing fees, the Ferguson court stated that it was not reaching the question of whether constitutional principles of due process or equal protection would invalidate general fee legislation having the effect of depriving indigents in ordinary civil cases of access to the courts.

In Isrin v. Superior Court (1965) 63 Cal.2d 153, 45 Cal.Rptr. 320, 403 P.2d 728, also relied upon by petitioner, the issue presented was whether an indigent plaintiff in a civil action should be denied the right to proceed in forma pauperis on the sole ground that such plaintiff had an attorney who was acting under a contingency fee contract. An earlier case, Gomez v. Superior Court (1933) 134 Cal.App. 19, 24 P.2d 856, had held that an attorney's contingent interest in the litigation was sufficient to bar his client from suing in forma pauperis. The Isrin court disapproved of Gomez and held that the right to proceed in forma pauperis in appropriate cases may not be denied on the ground that counsel for the indigent litigant is representing him pursuant to a contingent fee contract. The Isrin court stressed the fact that the natural consequence of the Gomez rule would be that an indigent litigant, with an uncertain claim, might be required to proceed without counsel and, in such a case, might simply fail to assert through the courts valid rights that he possessed. The Isrin court concluded with this cogent statement: ‘To the extent that Gomez thus has the practical effect of restricting an indigent's access to the courts because of his poverty, it contravenes the fundamental notions of equality and fairness which since the earliest days of the common law have found expression in the right to proceed in forma pauperis. [Citation.]’ (Isrin, supra, 63 Cal.2d 153, at p. 165, 45 Cal.Rptr. 320, at p. 328, 403 P.2d 728, at p. 736.) (Emphasis added.)

Respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles point out that the holding in Hunt v. Hackett (1973) 36 Cal.App.3d 134, 111 Cal.Rptr. 456 leads to the conclusion that the County of Los Angeles is under no statutory duty to assume the cost of an interpreter in a civil action irrespective of the indigency of the litigant. The Hunt case does stand for the principle that there is no common law authority in California that sanctions the appointment of counsel for an indigent in a civil case. Hunt points out that Martin v. Superior Court (1917) 176 Cal. 289, 168 P. 135, had held that courts have an inherent power, derived from the common law, to allow indigents access to the courts in forma pauperis. But Hunt then states that ‘[i]t appears that the right of access to the courts, which is afforded to indigents by the common law, has not been extended to include any right to court-appointed counsel.’ (Hunt, supra, 36 Cal.App.3d 134, at p. 137, 111 Cal.Rptr. 456, at p. 458.)

The Hunt court was presented with a situation not presented in Ferguson, to wit, the right of indigents to receive funds from the county to pay third-person charges involved in a civil action. Hunt is a direct holding, therefore, that there is no inherent common law power in the courts to authorize payment from county funds for a thirdperson charge to a civil litigant in the form of compensation for counsel to be appointed by the court.

Petitioner Jara, respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles, each considers that the case of Gardiana v. Small Claims Court (1976) 59 Cal.App.3d 412, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675, supports their respective positions. Petitioner Jara cites Gardiana as authority for his position that an indigent civil-litigant defendant who does not speak or understand English has the right to an interpreter to be paid from county funds. Respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles point out that, prior to Gardiana, no court in California had ever decided that an indigent party to a civil action who did not understand the English language, had a right to an interpreter to be paid from county funds. Respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles urge that Gardiana is unsupported by prior Supreme Court decisions and appears to be an anomaly in a long line of California decisions that have held that indigent parties to a civil action are not entitled to free services in the form of third-person charges.

Gardiana dealt with the question of the right to an interpreter at public expense in the case of an indigent defendant in a small claims action where such defendant does not understand or speak English. One holding of the Gardiana court was that the small claims court had a right to provide interpreters for indigent small claim litigants by formally or informally securing the voluntary services of a private citizen, or a court officer, or a government employee—persons other than a person specifically employed as an interpreter under the provisions of Government Code section 26806. In so holding, it was stated that ‘where the court is able to obtain the services of qualified interpreters who are willing to donate their services to the court, the use of such persons in small claims proceedings would be entirely in keeping with the purpose and functioning of the small claims court.’ (Gardiana, supra, 59 Cal.App.3d 412, at p. 420, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675, at p. 680.)

Gardiana also holds that a small claims court has the inherent power to appoint an interpreter, at county expense, for litigants who do not speak or understand English. For this holding, Gardiana relies in part upon the principle that ‘[i]ndependently of statute, every court has the ‘inherent power to swear interpreters whenever such a course is necessary to the due administration of justice.’' (Gardiana, supra, 59 Cal.App.3d 412, at p. 423, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675, at p. 681.) Gardiana cites for this principle of law the cases of Walker and Hilbert, supra. Gardiana also relies for its position on the statutory authority embodied in Evidence Code section 752, relating to the subject of interpreters for witnesses.

Although Evidence Code section 752, subsection (a), does not provide for any method of compensation for the mandatory requirement of an interpreter for a witness who does not speak or understand English, the Gardiana court refers to the fact that subsection (b) of section 752 provides that an interpreter may be appointed and compensated as are court-appointed expert witnesses, provided for in Evidence Code sections 730 and 731. Gardiana interprets section 752, subsection (b), as not mandating any particular method of compensation in view of the use of the discretionary term ‘may’ as contrasted with the mandatory term ‘shall’ uned in Evidence Code section 752, subsection (a). In light of the inherent power of the court to appoint interpreters and the statutory provisions of Evidence Code section 752, subsection (a), mandating the same requirement, Gardiana concluded that ‘[i]t follows that in the absence of any legislative directive to the contrary, the court has the power to order that the interpreter be paid with public funds.’ (Gardiana, supra, 59 Cal.App.3d 412, at p. 424, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675, at p. 682; accord, Millholen v. Riley (1930) 211 Cal. 29, 31, 293 P. 69.)

The Gardiana court distinguished the Hunt case by stating that ‘[a]lthough a court does not have the duty to appoint counsel for indigent civil litigants, it does have the duty to appoint an interpreter whenever it determines that one is necessary regardless of indigency.’ (Gardiana, supra, 59 Cal.App.3d 412, at p. 425, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675, at p. 683.) (Emphasis added.)

There are several distinctions between the situation presented in Gardiana and that presented in the case before us. First, the Gardiana case did not rest its decision upon any constitutional grounds of due process of law or equal protection of the laws. Second, in relying upon the statutory grounds embodied in Evidence Code section 752, subsection (a), Gardiana did not seek to distinguish between an interpreter being appointed for a witness as contrasted with an interpreter being appointed for a party defendant. There is a clear distinction between the two concepts. Appointment of an interpreter for a party defendant would have the consequence that the interpreter would interpret for such litigant all oral proceedings of the trial, including the language spoken by English-speaking witnesses, attorneys, the trial judge, jurors, and oral communication between defendant and his attorney. This distinction, however, was not required in Gardiana since it dealt with a small claims proceeding where no attorneys are permitted and where litigants are appearing generally in the capacity of both witnesses and their own counsel, except insofar as the trial judge spoke and understood English only.

But since Gardiana did not draw a distinction between an interpreter for a party defendant and an interpreter for a witness, it cannot be claimed that Gardiana represents a holding that, in a civil action other than a small claims action, an indigent party defendant who does not speak or understand the English language is entitled, at public expense, to have an interpreter who would interpret all of the oral proceedings involved in the litigation even though, as in the case before us, the litigant is also represented by counsel. Nevertheless, the result reached in Gardiana is sound, although Evidence Code section 752, subsection (a), is expressly made applicable only to the witness in civil litigation who is unable to speak or understand English.

Insofar as a party defendant is concerned, the Gardiana result can be justified upon the theory that the trial court, apart from statutory authorization, has an inherent power to appoint an interpreter for an indigent party defendant, as distinguished from witnesses, in a small claims proceeding because ‘such a course is necessary to the due administration of justice’. (Walker, supra, 69 Cal.App. 475, at p. 486, 231 P. 572, at p. 577.)

Respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles assert that there is no statutory aughorization for the County of Los Angeles to assume the cost of an interpreter for a witness or litigant in a civil action. Reference is made to Government Code section 26806, subdivision (c), which provides, in pertinent part, that in civil cases, an interpreter employed by the County Clerk ‘shall collect from the litigants the fee fixed by the court and shall deposit the same in the county treasury.’ Government Code section 68092, subdivision (b) provides, in pertinent part, that interpreters' fees shall be paid ‘[i]n civil cases, by the litigants, in such proportions as the court may direct, to be taxed and collected as other costs.’ (Emphasis added.)

This assertion that the absence of statutory authorization precludes the payment of interpreters from county funds in civil actions is lacking in substance. The failure of the Legislature fully to implement Evidence Code section 752 in its mandatory requirement for the appointment of interpreters for witnesses who do not speak or understand English would render section 752 meaningless if the court had no power to provide for payment of an interpreter for a witness at county expense if a litigant is unable to provide payment. Since there is no legislation which specifically forbids the payment of an interpreter for a witness when a litigant is unable to do so, the view of Gardiana is sound that section 752 must be interpreted as authorizing the court to order payment from public funds for the services of an interpreter in this situation. Also, the principle of the inherent power of the courts precludes any contrary result in the case of the need for an interpreter for a witness in a civil action in which the litigant is indigent and, therefore, cannot pay for the services of the interpreter.

II

DO THE CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLES OF DUE PROCESS OF LAW AND EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS REQUIRE THE APPOINTMENT OF AN INTERPETER, AT PUBLIC EXPENSE, FOR A DEFENDANT IN A CIVIL ACTION WHO DOES NOT UNDERSTAND OR SPEAK ENGLISH?

Petitioner Jara, although citing a number of authorities pertaining to due-process-of-law and equal-protection-of-the-laws constitutional requirements, does not refer us to any case which has held that, in a civil action, a defendant who does not speak or understand English has a constitutional right under the due process and equal protection provisions of the federal and state Constitutions to have an interpreter appointed, at county or other public expense, in the event of such defendant's indigency. The thrust of petitioner's contention is that, in a civil action, a defendant has a fundamental, substantial interest at stake in that he is subject to a financial or economic loss in terms of the creation against him of a liability that could lead to the loss of real and personal property in the event of an adverse decision; that such a litigant is entitled to an opportunity to be heard and to defend against the plaintiff's claim; and that there can be no meaningful opportunity to defend against plaintiff's claim if the defendant litigant does not speak or understand the English language and cannot, therefore, understand the proceedings against him.

Petitioner points out that section 185 of the Code of Civil Procedure requires that all judicial proceedings be conducted solely in English. For his constitutional contention, petitioner relies principally upon Boddie v. Connecticut (1971) 401 U.S. 371, 91 S.Ct. 780, 28 L.Ed.2d 113. Boddie sets forth the principle ‘that due process requires, at a minimum, that absent a countervailing state interest of overriding significance, persons forced to settle their claims of right and duty through the judicial process must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Early in our jurisprudence, this Court voiced the doctrine that ‘[w]herever one is assailed in his person or his property, there he may defend’ [citations]. The theme that ‘due process of law signifies a right to be heard in one's defense,’ [citation], has continually recurred in the years . . ..' (Boddie, supra, 401 U.S. 371, at p. 377, 91 S.Ct. 780, at pp. 785–786, 28 L.Ed.2d 113.) (Emphasis added.)

What constitutes a ‘meaningful opportunity to be heard’? Boddie expanded somewhat on this concept by stating that ‘[w]hat the Constitution does require is ‘an opportunity . . . granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner,’ Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552, 85 S.Ct. 1187, 1191, 14 L.Ed.2d 62 (1965) (emphasis added), ‘for [a] hearing appropriate to the nature of the case,’ [citation].' (Boddie, supra, 401 U.S. 371, at p. 378, 91 S.Ct. 780, at p. 786, 28 L.Ed.2d 113.)

The holding of Boddie was to the effect that a state could not, without violating due process of law, preclude an indigent plaintiff from access to the courts to secure a divorce without payment of filing fees. Since the state law involved in Boddie precluded a person from securing a divorce without judicial action, Boddie held that failure to permit an indigent plaintiff to proceed in forma pauperis to obtain a divorce, constituted a violation of the litigant's right of access to the courts. However, Boddie was careful to point out certain limits to its holding on the right of access to the courts as a due process requirement. Thus, it was stated: ‘We do not decide that access for all individuals to the courts is a right that is, in all circumstances, guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment so that its exercise may not be placed beyond the reach of any individual, . . .’ (Boddie, supra, 401 U.S. 371, at pp. 382–383, 91 S.Ct. 780, at p. 788, 28 L.Ed.2d 113.)

The Boddie doctrine that constitutional due process requirements, whether pertaining to the matter of access to courts or to some other matter, are dependent upon the circumstances of a particular case, is reiterated by the California Supreme Court in Sokol v. Public Utilities Commission (1966) 65 Cal.2d 247, 254, 53 Cal.Rptr. 673, 678, 418 P.2d 265, 270, in which the court stated: ‘What is due process depends on circumstances. It varies with the subject matter and the necessities of the situation. (Holmes, J., in Moyer v. Peabody (1909) 212 U.S. 78, 84, 29 S.Ct. 235, 53 L.Ed. 410 . . .) Its content is a function of many variables, including the nature of the right affected, the degree of danger caused by the proscribed condition or activity, and the availability of prompt remedial measures.’

In asserting that, in a civil action, a party defendant who does not speak or understand English has no constitutional right to the services of an interpreter, even though such party is indigent, respondent municipal court and the real party in interest, County of Los Angeles, place reliance on the California Supreme Court case of Guerrero v. Carleson (1973) 9 Cal.3d 808, 109 Cal.Rptr. 201, 512 P.2d 833 and the Hunt case, supra, Guerrero held that neither the due process provisions of the United States Constitution nor those of the California Constitution mandated that notice by the State Department of Social Welfare of a reduction or termination in welfare payments had to be given in the Spanish language to recipients who were literate only in Spanish. Guerrero points out that no prior decisional-law authority could be cited for a different result.

But Guerrero cannot be considered as controlling authority on the issue before us since it did not deal with the question of what constitutes a person's constitutional right of access to the courts—specifically if that person is a party defendant in a civil action and is a person who is indigent and who does not understand or speak the English language.

In Payne v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 908, 911, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, 553 P.2d 565, 568 it was stated: ‘Few liberties in America have been more zealously guarded than the right to protect one's property in a court of law. This nation has long realized that none of our freedoms would be secure if any person could be deprived of his possessions without an opportunity to defend them “at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” (Fuentes v. Shevin (1972) 407 U.S. 67, 80, 92 S.Ct. 1983, 1994, 32 L.Ed.2d 556, 569–570.) In a variety of contexts, the right of access to the courts has been reaffirmed and strengthened throughout our 200-year history.’

In Payne, a prisoner in a state prison was the defendant in a civil action. He was indigent and initially denied the right to personally appear in the court action and the right to counsel at public expense. The Payne court held that the dual deprivation of appointed counsel and the right to personal presence in court constituted a violation of this defendant's rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of both the state and federal Constitutions. Payne was careful to point out, however, that it was not holding that the denial of each of the rights individually is invalid. ‘Indeed, to grant petitioner an absolute right to both appointed counsel and personal appearance would achieve the anomalous result of according him greater privileges than those possessed by an ordinary indigent civil litigant.’ (Payne, supra, 17 Cal.3d 908, at p. 923, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, at p. 416, 553 P.2d 565, at p. 576.)

In the case at bench, we do not deal with the question of the right to appointed counsel of an indigent defendant in a civil action. Petitioner Jara is represented by counsel. Although not disagreeing with Hunt, supra, the Payne court refers to Hunt's explanation that a holding that indigent civil litigants do not have a right to appointed counsel produces no necessarily harsh result because of reasonable alternatives, including services provided by legal aid societies, and attorneys who undertake the ethical duty not to reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.

The rationale of Payne would seem to dictate that the state's denial to an indigent party defendant in a civil case—a defendant who does not understand or speak English—of the right to an interpreter at county expense, constitutes a due process and equal protection violation of both the federal and California Constitutions.

It was not petitioner Jara's choice to become a party to civil litigation. Having been brought into a civil action as a defendant by plaintiff Bell, petitioner Jara seeks to protect any property he may own in the future. Any judgment against him may constitute a danger to any property he may acquire for years to come. The case at bench thus comes within the principle set forth in Boddie, that ‘absent a countervailing state interest of overriding significance, persons forced to settle their claims of right and duty through the judicial process must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard.’ (Boddie, supra, 401 U.S. 371, at p. 377, 91 S.Ct. 780, at p. 785, 28 L.Ed.2d 113.)

The basic issue may be said to involve the question of whether defendant Jara, represented by counsel, will be able to establish his defense without the benefit of an interpreter. The answer seems obvious. Without an interpreter, petitioner Jara as a defendant will be unable to understand any of the oral proceedings which must be conducted in English. This includes the testimony of witnesses against him, the statements of the judge, of opposing counsel and his own counsel and an inability to converse with his own counsel if such counsel does not speak or understand Spanish. Any defendant in a civil action who is placed under such a handicap cannot be deemed to have been accorded a constitutional right of access to the courts. Such a denial of a ‘meaningful opportunity to be heard’ constitutes a deprivation of property without due process of law.

Although two subsequent decisions of the United States Supreme Court have limited somewhat the scope of Boddie (United States v. Kras (1973) 409 U.S. 434, 93 S.Ct. 631, 34 L.Ed.2d 626; Ortwein v. Schwab (1973) 410 U.S. 656, 93 S.Ct. 1172, 35 L.Ed.2d 572), they ‘did not alter the impact of the decision on the rights of civil defendants.’ (Payne, supra, 17 Cal.3d 908, at p. 915, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, at p. 411, 553 P.2d 565, at p. 571.)

Petitioner Jara, as an indigent defendant—who does not speak or understand English—seeking to defend a civil suit, has a due process right of access to the courts which has been abridged by the failure of the state to provide him with an interpreter while requiring that the judicial proceedings be conducted in English. Under such circumstances, ‘[t]he state has the burden of demonstrating a compelling state interest to justify the infringement.’ (Payne, supra, 17 Cal.3d 908, at p. 919, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, at p. 413, 553 P.2d 565, at p. 573.)

The denial to petitioner Jara, as a defendant in a civil action, of a meaningful access to the courts, also constitutes a denial of equal protection of the laws. Indigent defendants in a civil case who speak and understand English can understand the oral proceedings against them and, hence, can properly assert a defense and are not denied a meaningful opportunity to be heard and defend, while an indigent defendant who does not understand or speak English and is not provided with an interpreter is denied such an opportunity. ‘[T]o be heard in court to defend one's property is a right of fundamental constitutional dimension; in order to justify granting the right to one group while denying it to another, the state must show a compelling state interest. [Citation.]’ (Payne, supra, 17 Cal.3d 908, at p. 919, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, at p. 413, 553 P.2d 565, at p. 573.)

In seeking to justify petitioner Jara's deprivation of a meaningful access to the courts as an indigent, non-English-speaking defendant, respondent municipal court and real party in interest County of Los Angeles set forth several asserted compelling state interests. One such interest asserted is that of maintaining a single language system. (See Guerrero, supra, 9 Cal.3d 808, at p. 815, 109 Cal.Rptr. 201, at p. 205, 512 P.2d 833, at p. 837); cf. Castro v. State of California (1970) 2 Cal.3d 223, 85 Cal.Rptr. 20, 466 P.2d 244.) Another state interest asserted is that of discouraging frivolous litigation by imposing costs on all litigants. Another state interest referred to is that of holding the maintenance of the courts within reasonable monetary limits. We find no merit in the contention that these state interests—most all of which are founded on financial or cost considerations—are of such a substantial nature to justify the denial of access to the courts in civil cases to defendants who are indigent and who do not understand or speak the English language.

The state interest in maintaining the single language system of English in court proceedings is significant and essential but this interest will not be compromised, endangered, disturbed or dented to any appreciable degree by the public expense involved in providing interpreters in civil actions to indigent defendants who do not understand or speak English. We seriously question the view that the cost of maintaining the court system will be increased to any appreciable degree if interpreters are provided at public expense in the limited situation presented in the case at bench. ‘In any event, the Supreme Court [of the United States] has held that financial savings cannot justify an otherwise unconstitutional state action. (Shapiro v. Thompson (1969) supra, 394 U.S. 618, 633, 89 S.Ct. 1322, 22 L.Ed.2d 600, 614.)’ (Payne, supra, 17 Cal.3d 908, at pp. 920–921, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, at p. 414, 553 P.2d 565, at p. 574.)

Finally, we point out the limits of our holding. We do not deal with the question of whether, in civil actions, indigent plaintiffs who do not speak or understand English have any constitutional right to an interpreter at public expense. We hold simply that, in a civil action, if the defendant is indigent and does not speak or understand English, and irrespective of whether he is, or is not, represented by counsel, and, if represented by counsel, irrespective of whether counsel speaks and understands English only, the due process and equal protection provisions of the federal and state Constitutions require, in order for such defendant to have a meaningful opportunity to be heard and defend, that an interpreter be appointed for him at public expense.

The judgment appealed from is reversed.

I dissent.

It is impossible for me to concur in the majority's discussion of the Gardiana case. That opinion specifically states (59 Cal.App.3d at p. 415, 130 Cal.Rptr. 675) that plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ seeking appointment of an interpreter for trial.

The record does not contain any trial date notice. It seems to me that there is neither constitutional nor statutory authority to appoint an interpreter merely to assist counsel, as here, in talking to his client. Once that client gets into court and is a witness it may become another matter under Gardiana (although the term ‘witness' is not defined in the Evidence Code).

In view of the foregoing, I see no reason, under Rule 976, California Rules of Court, to publish this opinion.

I would affirm the judgment.

JEFFERSON, Associate Justice.

KINGSLEY, Acting P. J., concurs.