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In one case highlighted in the report, a domestic-violence victim endured 10 court dates over three years to divorce her abusive husband because she could not obtain an Urdu interpreter. Since her case could have been resolved immediately but for the language barrier, she recalled, “having to keep going back to court and not getting anything out of it made me very, very stressed.”
A housing-court litigant who spoke the Chaozhou dialect of Chinese but had only a Mandarin-speaking interpreter ended up not understanding the proceedings and in the end “had no idea that he had lost the trial or that he was being evicted.”
A housing-court litigant recalled “watch[ing] as the landlord’s lawyer and the judge were talking back and forth having a conversation. I couldn’t understand what was happening. It made me cry, because I couldn’t communicate properly or stand up for myself.”
And since many civil litigants cannot even afford lawyers in court, they may not even know how to demand interpretation at an eviction hearing. “What other institution in New York can you just walk into and demand an interpreter?” says Clarke. While language access is generally guaranteed for courts and all public services, she adds, “that hasn’t been the lived experience of their life…they’re used to walking in and having people yell at them and saying, ‘Why aren’t you speaking English?’ ”
LSNYC urges New York policy-makers to strengthen staffing and use a streamlined system for posting interpreters’ schedules in advance. A state bill has been proposed to expand language access with additional multilingual legal aid and informational materials in high-demand languages.
Some of the civil legal-aid crisis could soon be alleviated in New York City with new reforms ensuring legal assistance for low-income tenants in housing court. However, language access remains a challenge even with expanded legal resources, Clarke warns: “It’s only a meaningful change for LEP immigrants where they can communicate appropriately with both the court and their newly-appointed counsel.”
Nationwide, the federal Department of Justice’s research shows huge disparities across states in language access policies and practices. Some state criminal courts are not guaranteed interpretation for trials.
A recent national analysis highlighted one 2013 case of a Spanish-speaking rape survivor in the Chicago area being denied a court interpreter, and instead, “the judge asked counsel to rephrase the question and continued with the proceeding.” Transcripts revealed a painful scene of the victim struggling to give an account of the incident, unable to understand basic words like “choked.”
Eventually due to “insufficient testimony,” the charges were dropped, and the defendant was months later charged with the “brutal sexual assault of a fifteen-year-old girl.”
It’s unknown whether an interpreter could have prevented anything in this case, but it’s clear that many layers of structural oppression forced the first victim into silence, beyond her linguistic ability. Due-process rights are constantly impacted by institutional bias—racial and economic hierarchies that in turn undermine civic cohesion for many vulnerable immigrant communities.
Yet deficits in language access are a barrier to justice that policy-makers could begin to remedy simply by ensuring people have reliable means of communication in court. For New York’s linguistically disadvantaged, justice is not so much blind but deaf. And the silencing of immigrant voices in court shows that the courts still don’t understand that due process means equality in every language.