Finding Interpreters Poses Challenge for State Courts

Six times a New York City woman appeared in Family Court to get an order of protection against her ex-partner. Four of those six times her case was adjourned because an interpreter wasn’t there to translate a language from Sri Lanka for her adversary.

Finally, she gave up.

“She felt like it just wasn’t worth it to her to keep having to go to court, prepare for court and confront somebody who had been abusive in the past,” said Susanna Saul, a supervising attorney at Her Justice. “We felt we had somehow let her down. We represented that this court system was going to [help] her.”

The woman’s plight highlights what many attorneys say is a significant problem in state courts—the difficulty of finding interpreters when the number of those working full time for the state has been trimmed and per diem interpreters are often unavailable or delayed.

In Saul’s order of protection case, the state’s sole interpreter who speaks Sinhalese was not available for the proceedings. M. Audrey Carr, director of immigration and special programs at Legal Services NYC, called the case “a pretty egregious example” of delays caused by the interpreter shortage, “but not uncommon, unfortunately.”

There are about 270 staff interpreters on the OCA payroll, down from 335 in 2009, according to Ronald Younkins, executive director for the state’s Office of Court Administration.

In an interview, Younkins said the lower head count is largely due to staff retiring or leaving for other positions. He said five interpreters were laid off in 2011 due to lack of court funds but were later rehired.

He said the court system hasn’t been able to fill all of the open positions because its operating budgets have been flat and it has had mandatory increased costs in other areas, such as salary increases. However, he said the court was in the process of hiring nine interpreters, and that providing interpreting services remains “a very high priority” for the court system.

“It’s an access to justice issue,” he said. “People have to be able to understand what is going on during their procedures. The reduction in court interpreters has been a challenge, but we’ve tried to meet that with increased use of per diem [interpreters].”

The court system spent $6.5 million to pay for per diem interpreters in 2013—$1 million more than it spent in 2009. There are currently about 500 per diem interpreters available. “That has significantly helped to fill the gap,” Younkins said. “They give you the flexibility to put people exactly where you need them.”

He said the court system also is providing interpreters for more languages—106 this year, up from 95 in 2009. New languages include Burmese and Karen, a language spoken in Myanmar.

But some attorneys said that the state’s efforts have fallen short.

Carr recalled one woman fighting for custody of her children has had her case adjourned four times since September 2012 because a Bengali interpreter was not available.

“Our family law attorneys routinely report back to us they’re having a lot of issues with interpreters. It’s interpreters not showing, not being available,” and sometimes poor quality of interpretation in languages other than Spanish, said Carr, a member of the Advisory Committee on Court Interpreting for OCA.

Michael Grinthal, a supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services, recounted an eviction case a few years ago in which a Spanish-speaking tenant with a medical condition waited all day for an interpreter in Brooklyn Housing Court. She eventually had to leave as she was in pain, and her case defaulted. A Brooklyn legal services provider later got the default vacated, but Grinthal said the example shows how such delays can make a client vulnerable.

“They longer they wait, the more likely they are to sign anything put in front of them,” he said.

In-demand court interpreters often have to go from one court to another in the same day. Barbara Graves-Poller, another supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services, said attorneys and their clients sometimes have to wait hours, or longer, for an interpreter to arrive.

“Our clients cannot afford to take time off from work, don’t have readily available child care and don’t have transportation,” she said. “Whenever there are delays, it disadvantages them personally.”

For a litigant with a particular Chinese or African dialect, a case can be put over for a month while an interpreter is sought, said Sateesh Nori, attorney in charge of civil practice at the Legal Aid Society in Queens.

“If the case is delayed,” he said, “any settlement, any negotiation leverage they might have early in the case may disappear. The landlord is often frustrated and they hold it against the tenant. But it’s not their fault the court couldn’t provide adequate interpretation.”

In cases involving non-Spanish interpreters, “you get a lot of adjournments and you have to wait around,” said Carlos Perez-Hall, who represents landlords at Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel. “It’s frustrating because what you have is a situation where people who don’t speak English are put at a disadvantage.”

Sheryl Karp, supervising attorney at Legal Aid Society’s Harlem Community Law Offices, said Legal Aid attorneys requested an interpreter for three separate settlement conferences for a Japanese-speaking tenant facing eviction. Each time, a Japanese interpreter wasn’t available, and Karp had to call a private language line to provide interpretation.

Karp said if her client was pro se, as are about 90 percent of litigants are in the city’s Housing Court, “she would have come three times for nothing.”

Manhattan Housing Court Judge Sabrina Kraus, who is president of the Housing Court Judges Association, said the Bronx is particularly vulnerable, as it has a large number of landlord-tenant cases and some of the poorest tenants.

“In some cases, the litigant will try to persuade you to proceed without an interpreter,” Kraus said. “If they’re settling a lawsuit, it’s very important that they understand 100 percent.”

Saul, whose client abandoned her quest for an order of protection, said Her Justice attorneys submitted a complaint to the court about the experience, prompting an apology from the Office of Court Interpreting Services, which acknowledged that the interpreter’s failure to appear was a breach of ethical rules.

“We felt they had responded appropriately,” Saul said. “It was clear they took this very seriously.”

Changing Needs

New York’s foreign-born population edged up to 3 million in 2011—a new peak—from 2.9 million in 2000, according to city figures. Fast-changing demographic shifts make it more difficult for the court to respond to demand, Nori said, pointing to Queens in particular.

“While today we might be prepared for Hindi, tomorrow we’d need Bengali because the neighborhood has changed,” he said. “To be fair, the court has done a decent job in trying to meet these demands, but I’m not sure they have the budget to really keep up with the changing face of Queens.”

Sandra Bryan, coordinator for Court Interpreting Services at OCA, which sets policies on the court interpreting, said her office has noticed more requests for languages in Central and South America and from Africa, and it is addressing a rising demand for interpreters in central and upstate New York through a remote interpreting video program.

One challenge is finding qualified interpreters. Bryan said 30 to 40 percent of candidates fail written tests, often failing basic grammar skills. For those who do pass, only one in four succeed in a required oral exam. “I would like more people to pass,” she said.

There are some languages for which no standard oral exam exists, and the office has to test interpreters “to a degree that makes us comfortable in sending them to a courtroom,” Bryan said.

The starting salary for staff interpreters is about $52,000, Bryan said.

Per diem interpreters are not employees of the court system. They are paid $250 for a full day and $140 for a half day of work. “We can’t make people materialize. They’re independent contractors,” Bryan said.

Younkins, the OCA official, said the court does not have figures to indicate how often cases are adjourned because an interpreter is not available. However, he said the court system takes “appropriate action” when a per diem interpreter fails to appear, such as possibly removing the person from a call list.

Bryan said she does not believe adjournments due to absent interpreters happen frequently.

“It would be foolish of me to say we never have an adjournment,” she said. “What’s better: to send an unqualified person, or to tell the judge we have no one?”

Edward Luk, a Mandarin and Cantonese staff interpreter at the Manhattan Civil Court building at 111 Centre St., said he has been asked to work in other courthouses since 2012, when a Chinese-language interpreter retired and was not replaced. Luk said this sometimes delays responding to requests in Civil Court.

Still, Luk said he’s usually able to handle a second competing request for his interpreting services without a long delay.

“There are numerous unforeseen circumstances,” such as walk-in litigants who need directions, he said. “How can I leave the courtroom and help this person?”

“Of course it would help” to have more interpreters, he said, but noted, “we are always doing the best we can with what we know. We cannot staff for unknowns.”

Younkins said the court is expanding availability of language lines in courthouses, which are telephone services at self-help centers and other points in courthouses. The state also plans to roll out bilingual orders of protection within a month in a few locations, with the ultimate goal of having them statewide, he said.

Hallway Negotiations

In Housing Court, many cases are settled in the hallway, where interpreters are needed but not required.

“Everything really happens in the hallway,” Grinthal said. “That’s where you talk about the case. That’s where the lawyers give you the agreement you’re supposed to sign. And what often happens is that people just make due when they don’t have an interpreter.”

Bryan said interpreters are allowed to help negotiations in hallways, but often can’t because they are needed in a courtroom.

Meanwhile, attorneys report a large variance in interpretation quality. In one MFY case where the client was seeking a temporary order of guardianship for her grandchild in Bronx Family Court, the client said the child’s teeth were rotting and the child was in need of extreme, urgent care. But the interpreter only said, “he really needs help, he has a lot of problems,” Graves-Poller said.

Nori said interpreters sometimes give legal advice to litigants, which is forbidden. “If you’re unrepresented and you don’t speak English, and the only person you relate to is the interpreter, the litigant may ask the interpreter, ‘What should I do?'” Nori said.

Attorneys have also complained of interpreter bias, especially in close communities where interpreters are more likely to know one of the litigants, Graves-Poller said. Attorneys sometimes tell judges about bias and poor interpretation quality, but that information often doesn’t get back to the court system employing the interpreters, she said.

Sometimes lawyers say judges are to blame. Graves-Poller said she has heard of judges who begin a proceeding without waiting for an interpreter, and judges who question the need for an interpreter after hearing a litigant speak some English.