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NY: Language and justice: States need more interpreters for civil cases

Monday, August 03, 2009

People who do not speak English deserve their day in American courts like everyone else.

But non-English speakers cannot be adequately represented if they do not understand the proceedings due to the language barrier.

Federal law requires that free interpreters be provided in criminal and civil cases for people with limited understanding of English. Yet many states do not provide interpreters in all civil cases, the New York Times reported.

A study released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school examined civil courts in 35 states with the most immigrants. The results are surprising: 46 percent do not require interpreters in all cases, 80 percent do not always pay for the service and 37 percent do not ensure that the interpreters are qualified, according to the Times.

"This must change," the report said. "Federal law, principles of fundamental fairness, and our need for equal access to the justice system will demand it."

Civil courts cover issues of great importance to individuals and families. Richard S. Brown, a state appellate judge in Wisconsin, observed: "Civil cases can involve denial of constitutional property rights, termination of parental rights, statutory rights to be free from harassment and stalking, consumer transactions, foreclosures and a host of other matters. If a person cannot understand what is happening in the courtroom proceeding, an unfair result might occur. And that is contradictory to what we want our courts to do: administer justice, fairly and impartially."

When it comes to cases of family law, with issues such as divorce, child custody and abuse, the language barrier "can mean the difference between justice and injustice," said Purvi Shah, who heads a group which deals with domestic violence among South Asians in the United States.

Many states are trying to supply interpreters, but are having trouble finding enough qualified individuals. Rising costs and a multitude of languages are problems.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandates interpreters for all federally funded programs. Certainly justice depends on people understanding what is happening in court.

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