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Study: R.I. lags in providing interpreters in civil court cases

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

By Karen Lee Ziner

Journal Staff Writer

In 2004, the Rhode Island Judiciary marked a milestone when it opened its first Office of Court Interpreters to help non-English speakers understand legal proceedings. But according to a new study, Rhode Island and many other states do not require that court interpreters be provided in all civil cases, often in violation of federal law.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law studied 35 states with the highest proportion of people who do not understand English. Its report, Language Access in State Courts, said Rhode Island is among the 46 percent that fail to require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases.

“It is crystal clear that the Rhode Island Judiciary is covered by Title VI [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act],” said Laura K. Abel, author of the report and deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Access to Justice Program. The act requires civil and criminal courts that receive federal funding to provide free interpreters for people who need them.

The study found that while interpreters are commonly offered in criminal cases, many states do not require interpreter services in all civil cases. Eighty percent fail to guarantee that the courts will pay for the interpreter, and 37 percent fail to require interpreters to be credentialed.

When interpreters are not provided for civil cases, “the human toll is tragic,” Abel said. “Children are forced to interpret for their parents in sensitive divorce and child custody cases. People leave court without knowing what happened, and can’t comply with court orders. Judges don’t know what witnesses are saying.” Civil matters also include temporary restraining orders, evictions, foreclosures, and property rights.

Court spokesman Craig Berke said the Brennan Center report “is only half the story.”

“We provide interpreter services for criminal matters and juvenile matters and that’s where the priority is. State law requires it for criminal and juvenile matters, but does not require it for civil matters,” said Berke. “We do provide free interpreter services for civil matters on an ad hoc basis, provided the resources are available and not depriving criminal defendants of this service.”

Because criminal cases often involve issues of personal liberty, “we want to be absolutely sure that a defendant in a criminal case who does not speak English or understand English … knows what’s happening in the courtroom,” Berke said. “Civil matters don’t usually involve matters of personal liberty or being put in jail, so the priority is on criminal matters.”

To date this year, the Office of Court Interpreters provided services in 1,581 criminal matters and 1,320 civil matters, Berke said. The latter includes juvenile conferences, restraining orders, divorce, child support calendar, Superior Court Clerk’s Office and Probation Office.

The office employs six full-time Spanish interpreters, who work “at full capacity,” interpreting in the courtroom and translating vital documents and other written information, Berke said. The state purchases interpreter services for languages other than Spanish, and for the deaf or hard-of-hearing.

He said that the judiciary hopes to expand those services to include additional languages and more personnel. “We do the very best we can with the limited resources we have,” said Berke, “and we think we have a great staff of interpreters who do a great job.”

Abel acknowledges the difficulty and expense that courts have in fulfilling the federal interpreter requirements

“To be completely fair to the court system, it’s very hard to find good interpreting and to provide it in all the languages needed, but there are plenty of states that do it,” she said. “New York does, New Jersey does it, Pennsylvania. Each state varies. The states that do it best tend to use staff interpreters for most common spoken languages and contract interpreters for less common spoken languages.”

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union is awaiting resolution of a 2004 federal complaint against the state for “failing to provide appropriate language interpreter services in criminal court proceedings to Limited English Proficient persons.”

The complaint sought federal intervention, arguing that the courts’ interpreter services — then and “for the foreseeable future” — do not meet federal standards. It also cited the “vagaries inherent in the state’s budget process” and uncertain fiscal situation as reasons for intervention.

Steven Brown, the RI/ACLU executive director, said, “We weren’t arguing that the courts were operating in bad faith. To the contrary, we said there had been a number of good faith attempts to ensure adequate services, and the legislature passed a state statute to do the same thing.”

Brown said that after hearing “nothing, literally for years,” the Justice Department last fall said it wanted to resolve the complaint in early 2009. In June, it said a draft of a language-access plan from the courts would be available in a few weeks.”

Berke said, “The judiciary is currently formulating a written-language access plan which details the outstanding interpreter services it has been providing for the last several years.”

To read the report, visit: The report includes a link for state summaries, including Rhode Island.

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