Cover Story: Providing court interpreters

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The language barrier and our legal system.  Civil rights advocates say what's happening in our civil courts is a miscarriage of justice.

One week ago, Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason was fighting for his good name in court.  A jury sided with Beason in his strip-club-sucker-punch civil trial.

But what if the judge and all the lawyers were speaking in another language, say Vietnamese.  The outcome might have been different.

Sound bizarre? Maybe not.

Civil rights advocates say there's serious discrimination happening in the North Carolina court system.

The Latin American Society, the Muslim American Society, and the Vietnamese Society say people who aren't fluent in English aren't getting a fair shot at justice.

What's their solution?  To provide language interpreters.  But who pays for them if the individual in court can't pay, and right now the courts aren't flush with cash.

And therein lies the rub.

Three groups representing the Hispanic, Asian and Muslim communities have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate North Carolina's court system and stop what they say is discrimination in the N.C. courts.

As it stands now language interpreters are provided to people who need them in criminal court cases.  Not the case in all civil court cases.

For example suppose someone shows up in small claims court seeking to recoup wages an employer hasn't paid them.  If they can't communicate with the court they can't make their case.

And according to the Latin American Coalition, one of the groups who filed the complaint, that individual is being denied equal access to justice.

"These folks have already been victims. They don't have any money. So for them to pay for an interpreter at $20 to $50 an hour just to be heard.. just to have justice done is sometimes insurmountable obstacles for them," said executive director Jess George.

The Postal Service often provides language interpreters.  One might expect the courts to do the same across the board.

But providing interpretative services for the courts is highly specialized and expensive.  Interpreters can charge up to $60 an hour.

And right now with a huge budget deficit the General Assembly is looking at making cuts not add to the budget.

Popular court services like Drug Court, Family Court and Trial Court Administrator positions are in danger of being eliminated.

Charles Keller is the Community Access and Outreach Administrator for the judicial district that encompasses Mecklenburg county.  He says there's not much they can do with a language barrier in civil court.

"I'm sure it's very frustrating for folks that are in contact with the court system. it's frustrating for us because we can't provide services to them in some cases," says Keller.

Says the Latin American Coalition's Jess George, "Our goal is not to demand extra services. Our goal is not to put an additional burden on the court system.. our goal is to make sure our Civil Rights Act is being followed for the people who are most hurt by victimization and civil rights abuses already."

North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts which oversees the court system says it is in compliance with federal law.

To provide interpreters for all civil court cases could cost the state an additional $1.4 million.

The groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department.  They're hoping the feds will put pressure on the state to make changes and that funding would be provided.

The groups also want the courts to translate more important forms and web sites into additional languages.

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