North Carolina’s court system has been investigated by the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division for failing to provide for the basic rights of non-English-speaking defendants in court.
The court system, or AOC, has some policies in place to provide for individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), but the policies are illegally restrictive. The few policies that do support the rights of LEP individuals are rarely enforced. Among the illegally restrictive policies are the AOC’s refusal to provide interpreters for:
- Foreclosure proceedings;
- Child custody and child support hearings;
- No-contact order hearings;
- Small claims court, including wage disputes and evictions.
For those who classify as indigent and therefore are unable to provide their own Constitutionally guaranteed legal defense, interpreters may be considered part of the defense that the State provides in certain matters. Criminal, traffic, juvenile criminal, domestic violence proceedings, and post-judgment services hearings are types of matters where an indigent defendant may have a State provided interpreter.
In an effort to be more inclusive, the Courts are not just discriminating against the Hispanic community. LEP individuals whose first language is Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin, primarily) or an Arabic language are also being denied interpreters.
Even in cases where an interpreter is provided, the AOC may not have provided one in a fair manner. The Department of Justice’s investigation found instances when a criminal defendant’s interpreter was a member of the District Attorney’s staff, creating a conflict of interest that the court system ignored.
The court system has acknowledged that there is room for improvement. The reason they have not done more to provide services for LEP individuals is the cost. The Department of Justice’s report acknowledges that cost can be an issue; however the projected cost of $1.4 million is only .3% of the AOC’s overall budget.
When the court system blames the problem on cost, there is a point that is missed. $1.4 million seems like a lot of money, until the entire budget is viewed. The AOC has a $463.8 million budget, consisting largely of state and federal grants. Grants that can be revoked when the AOC is in violation of federal civil rights laws, as it is currently.
The biggest mistake the AOC is making is forgetting why it exists. Providing everyone with their Constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial, the right to competent representation, and equal protection under the law, is what the court system is for. Failing to provide interpreter services to LEP individuals is a failure to provide access to the courts and a fair trial.
The Department of Justice has granted the AOC until March 29, 2012, to create and begin implementing a plan to correct the current discriminatory system. Whether the AOC is able to fix the problem itself, or whether the Department of Justice must intervene, the outcome should be a more fair and accessible court system, regardless of a person’s fluency in English.