Court Programs and Services Need Language Access

Mr. Martinez is scheduled to appear in court. When he arrives at the courthouse, he asks the receptionist, “Hello, I go court?” She points to some security guards next to an X-ray machine. The very nervous and somewhat confused man approaches them and says, “Hello, I go court?” They gesture for him to clear his pockets into the tray and to step through the machine. They speak, but he doesn’t understand what they say. He becomes more nervous and removes everything from his pockets. He is relieved when it appears that he is clear to go.

However, Mr. Martinez doesn’t know where to go. There are no signs in Spanish; no one speaks Spanish. Now he changes his message, “Where court?” The security guard directs him to the elevator. There are four floors.  The poor man has no idea which floor is his. He enters the elevator and exits with everyone. He approaches a security officer and asks, “Where court?”  The security officer motions to the paper that Mr. Martinez carries. The officer makes a 3 with his fingers and directs him to the elevator. Mr. Martinez reaches the third floor and finds a security guard saying, you guessed it, “Where court?” The officer looks at his paper and directs him to the appropriate courtroom.

How painful was that story? Wasn’t it exhausting just reading it? Imagine the fear and insecurity that this person suffered just to appear in court. When his matter is called, he is both elated and thankful to have a certified court interpreter so that he can hear everything in a language he understands.  At the end of the hearing, the judge orders Mr. Martinez to pay a fine, take a class and provide proof of completion.

Mr. Martinez is instructed to proceed to the clerk’s office to pay the fine and sign some paperwork, including instructions for the class. He complies but has no idea what the paperwork says. He doesn’t know what to do about the class. No one speaks Spanish; his questions are unanswered. He understood the indication that his items are complete and the clerk must attend the next person in line.

This story is based on common occurrences that happen regularly. In addition to certified court interpreters, federal and state courts are also responsible to provide multilingual signs at all access points. Without them, how can limited English proficient individuals be expected to appear in the correct courtroom on time? Additionally, the inability to communicate with the clerk’s office or court-appointed counsel could impede an individual’s completion of necessary paperwork, participation in mediations and court-mandated treatment, visitation or programs.

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