National Center for Access to Justice

What Can Be Done When the Courts Violate Civil Rights?

The Department of Justice has released startling evidence that language barriers are leading to serious injustices in courts in North Carolina.  In a March 8 letter, DOJ warned North Carolina that its ongoing failure to provide court interpreters in civil cases, and in some criminal cases, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars courts and other recipients of federal funding from providing worse services to people on the basis of English language ability.   

DOJ reports that prosecutors in Wake and Durham counties ask people with limited English proficiency to plead guilty and then, assuming the role of “interpreters,” convey the guilty pleas to the courts. A judge relying solely on “prosecutorial interpreting” cannot know whether the person is even aware that a guilty plea is being entered, much less whether he understands the charges and consequences.  When the federal government then deports the person, it cannot know whether it is deporting an innocent person. 

The quality of justice is equally in doubt in civil cases.  In 2010, a mother in Wake County lost permanent custody of her children after a trial in which she struggled to understand basic facts because she had limited command of the English language.  Although she told the judge about her language difficulty, the court provided no interpreter.  She also had no lawyer to help.  Communication was so poor that at the end of the case she did not even understand that the judge’s ruling would cause her to lose her children.

In another case, a woman in Galston County sought a restraining order against her husband, claiming that he had attacked her.  However, the woman did not speak English.  Instead of appointing an interpreter so that the woman could describe the violence and her fears, the judge dismissed her case because he could not understand her.

People facing jail and deportation, mothers losing children, women powerless to stop domestic violence: these are just the sorts of cases in which we rely on the courts to get it right.  But in each situation, there is no way to know whether the outcomes are just, or just the result of miscommunication.

The remedy is clear:  interpreters must be provided for people who need them in order to communicate with and understand the courts.  That is what the Civil Rights Act says.  The American Bar Association agrees in the Standards for Language Access in Courts it adopted earlier this year.  And North Carolina can find models in the many states that already provide interpreters in all legal proceedings.  Indeed, even in the midst of the current economic downturn, Colorado, Georgia and Utah have all significantly expanded their court interpreter programs.

The courts cannot achieve reform on their own. The North Carolina legislature has slashed their budget.  For the courts to hire the interpreters that are needed, the legislature must allocate enough funding.  Restrictive court interpreter statutes may need to be changed, too. 

But there are things the courts can do now.  DOJ points out that the necessary reforms would cost only .3% of the courts’ total budget.  Some of the reforms DOJ seeks, like providing interpreters in a timely manner, would even save money by avoiding unnecessary incarceration when a hearing is postponed because no interpreter is available. 

However it happens, the need for reform is urgent.  As the Mecklenburg County court administrator told McClatchy Newspapers, “We are the very institution charged with protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens. This finding reveals that we’re actually the ones violating those civil rights.”  A court system that relies on the will of the people for its existence cannot last long when it is violating the people’s civil rights.
(Originally posted here April 5, 2012, by Laura Abel.  Cross-posted on the American Constitution Society’s blog: