When Language Is a Barrier to Justice

Attorneys who provide legal representation to the poor and underserved are painfully aware of the justice gap that exists for people who appear in court without an attorney. A recent article in the New York Law Journal points to a problem that is widening that gap: a shortage of translators in New York courts to assist litigants who are not proficient in English. As a consequence, people seeking orders of protection, fighting for custody of their children, or facing eviction are forced to wait weeks or even months for an interpreter to be assigned. In some cases, they arrive at court only to find that the translator did not show up. This causes serious problems for workers whose jobs are put at risk because they are forced to take more time off, or for families whose resources are strained as they struggle with child and elder care. Sometimes people just give up, sign documents they do not understand, or are pressured into going forward with their case without an interpreter – all with predictable results.

The need for language assistance services has never been greater. Today nearly two million people living in New York City do not speak English well, or at all. When access to translators or interpreters is denied, the result can be loss of services, public benefits, or vital legal protections –leading to hunger, poor health, homelessness, physical danger, and the breakup of families.

Language Access Volunteer Program

(L to R) Members of NYLAG’s Language Access Task Force: Mia Unger, Juliana Perez Calle, Kelsey Burdick, Shruti Banerjee and Yi-jen Chang.

In September 2013, NYLAG formed an internal taskforce to explore ways to improve its services for clients with limited English proficiency – a sizable number at an organization where over half of the 76,000 people served last year were immigrants, speaking dozens of languages. The idea was to formalize a process for interpretation assistance while not increasing the burden on NYLAG’s own bilingual and multilingual staff members – who themselves speak 24 different languages, and who have for years served as an ad hoc translation pool.

Based on task force’s recommendations, earlier this year NYLAG launched a new Language Access Program that has dramatically expanded the agency’s capacity by enlisting the services of a pool of volunteer interpreters. Today, this pool consists of 45 outside volunteers from many backgrounds: educators, recent immigrants, business professionals, attorneys and law students. All volunteers go through a stringent screening process to make sure their language skills are strong. They speak a total of 20 languages; NYLAG is actively seeking new interpreters, and adding new languages, including sign language, on an ongoing basis.

When an interpreter is needed, a NYLAG attorney consults an online roster, organized by language and daily availability. The attorney then contacts the volunteer to schedule an interpretation, and consults with the interpreter about the case and any legal concepts or terminology that may be important to flag in advance. A similar process is employed when attorneys need assistance translating documents, such as immigration documents from a client’s home country.

Language Access Volunteer Program

NYLAG staff attend a Language Access Volunteer program training.

NYLAG provides regular training sessions for all NYLAG staff members on best practices when working with an interpreter, such as maintaining eye contact with the client (not the interpreter), avoiding jargon or words that may be difficult to translate, being alert to signs of confusion or concern on the part of the client, and making sure that clients confirm that their words have been translated accurately.

“Every day, people with limited English proficiency face huge obstacles. They are more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace, victimized by unscrupulous landlords, become the targets of consumer fraud, and more,” said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge. ”We must do everything we can to make sure that when they navigate our legal and judicial systems, the language barrier does not become a barrier to justice as well.”

NYLAG has plans to continue expanding the program in the coming year, and recently testified at a City Council hearing about how such an approach could be applied by City agencies to better serve immigrant seniors.