Justice denied

The state might well find itself in big trouble if there continues to be a shortage of interpreters in courts.

May 27, 2011 

You're in France, and you don't speak the language (which means you're not making a lot of friends there) and by happenstance or misunderstanding, you find yourself standing in a French courtroom resulting from a dispute with a hotel. The prosecutor is laying out the case against you, and let's say you are innocent, but you don't understand a word he's saying, and when the time comes for you to defend yourself, the judge is looking at you quizzically, as if you're speaking...well, English.

Suddenly you understand that saying, "One is the loneliest number." And your chances of winning are about un sur un million (that's one in a million in French, but you don't know that)

Happens too often

This is exactly the position too many defendants in too many North Carolina courts find themselves in, here in the U.S. of A., where the justice system is supposed to fair to all.

Take the case of a man whose paycheck bounced, and the man went to small claims court. But he did not speak English, and The Charlotte Observer reported that the judge became frustrated and dismissed the case. If the language barrier foiled justice that time, it's safe to assume the scenario is repeated every day in North Carolina courtrooms.

The shortage of interpreters is felt most acutely in civil courts, as criminal defendants are provided them routinely. Obviously the feeling is that when someone's freedom is on the line, it's vital to have the defendant understand the court proceedings and for the judge to understand the defendant. But that can be every bit as important in a civil case, where livelihoods and fair treatment always are under debate.

And the disadvantage is clear: It falls exclusively on the person who isn't conversational in the courthouse native tongue. That could mean, as it did in the case of the worker cited by The Observer, lost wages. Or it might mean, in the example of a woman in court on a domestic abuse issue (also cited by the newspaper) the inability to explain to officers of the court what was going on, or to understand their questions.

Trouble brewing?

The state may face consequences. Three nonprofit organizations representing different groups affected by the shortage of interpreters, Latin American people, Muslims and Vietnamese, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation of discrimination.

They're arguing that the state isn't making the courts fair to non-English speakers, and is not, for example, translating court documents for them. Their attorney, Jack Holtzman of the N.C. Justice Center, makes a pretty stinging point when he says, "The alternative is chaos. That is the one thing that separates us from other countries around the world, a fair and accessible court system."

This complaint follows an opinion issued last summer by the Obama administration that those states that did not provide interpreters in all civil and criminal court cases risked being in violation of the Civil Rights Act. If the administration follows up on that warning, a great many states will be affected. One survey from a national law school found that of 35 states it studied, half didn't have laws requiring interpreters in civil court cases.

Make no mistake: North Carolina does spend, estimates the Administrative Office of the Courts, about $2.4 million a year for over 200 interpreters who speak 60 different languages. That's good, and doubtless better than many states are doing, but if it's not enough to cover civil cases, then it's not enough.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service