Language barriers in the courtroom

By Michelle Chen Jul 07, 2009

When it comes to defending their rights, countless immigrants in the civil court system are at a loss for words. Although interpretation services are widely available in criminal cases, many non-English speakers in civil cases, which range from domestic violence conflicts to foreclosure proceedings, have severely limited access to language assistance. In a new report on 35 states with large immigrant populations, the Brennan Center says nearly half of those states don’t guarantee a court interpreter in civil cases:

Nearly 25 million people in this country have limited proficiency in English (LEP), meaning that they cannot protect their rights in court without the assistance of an interpreter.  At least 13 million of those people live in states that do not require their courts to provide interpreters to LEP individuals in most types of civil cases.  Another 6 million live in states that undercut their commitment to provide interpreters by charging for them.  And many live in states that do not ensure that the "interpreters" they provide can speak English, speak the language to be interpreted, or know how to interpret in the specialized courtroom setting.

Denying language assistance to non-English speakers as they wade through court proceedings and legalese might in some cases violate the federal Civil Rights Act, according to the study. Yet some states with stronger court-interpretation policies must strain to keep up with the rising cost of services. Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl recently introduced a bill to boost state courts’ capacity to provide language assistance. As seen in recent cases involving immigrants caught up in child custody battles, the power to articulate your perspective to a judge or lawyer—especially when you represent a socially marginalized community—can mean the difference between keeping a family intact or severing it forever. The Brennan study illustrates the legal language barrier in the case of one domestic violence survivor:

A Korean woman seeking a protective order against her white, native-born husband testified that he had threatened to kill her and had firearms expertise. The judge denied the restraining order because he could not understand her testimony.

Social and family dynamics deepen the language gap, according to the ASISTA Immigrant Women’s Technical Assistance Project:

Victims are discouraged from accessing the court when they cannot communicate with court personnel. Courts may allow family members to serve as interpreters, or enlist immigrant community members who may have a bias against, or paternalistic approach to, the victim. Political, cultural and gender differences may inhibit a victim from speaking openly in court, and many interpreters may fail to provide phrase-by-phrase interpretation. In addition, many immigrant women may be reticent to discuss domestic violence in front of men, especially men from their community.

With so many factors threatening to silence immigrants who need justice, the least the legal system could provide them is the ability to be heard before the bench. Image: Court interpretation in Reading, PA (Tim Leedy / Reading Eagle)