About half of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. Twenty-five percent of them, or about 1.8 million people, are not fluent in English and have limited English proficiency (LEP), so typically they need an interpreter when they go to court. What is surprising, however, is that there are no accurate data on how many cases require the services of an interpreter in the New York State Unified Court System. There appears to be no accurate record of how many people per month or per year require the services of an interpreter to exercise their right to access to justice.
Among the recommendations made from a 2016 Legal Services NYC’ survey was that the “court system must track and publish annual data on the primary languages spoken by litigants in the different courts. This will allow the courts to better assess the need for language services and allocate resources accordingly.”
These recommendations have not been implemented and according to Ann Ryan, coordinator of the office of language access in the office of court administration, these data do not exist either, making it difficult to objectively know how the service is operating and what the ratio is between the number of interpreters and the number of cases.
The way the court interpreter service works, Ryan explained, is by seeking to strike a balance between the number of scheduled cases that require interpreters and the number of LEP people who show up in the courts. “It’s an emergency room type of situation,” Ryan says. People arrive at the courthouse and are diagnosed as if they are in triage, where they know whether they need an interpreter or not.
Number of interpreters in NYC (includes languages other than Spanish and the Court Interpreter supervisors)
|Borough||Supreme Court||Criminal Court||Civil Court||Family Court||Total interpreters|
|Kings||4 Civil Term, 6 Criminal Term||20||11||13||54|
|NY||4 Civil Term, 11 Criminal Term||24||13||15||67|
If a Spanish interpreter is required, there will most likely be one in court, but if it is a less common language, there is a database that includes 700 freelancers or “per diem” interpreters who speak about 200 languages, so the court contacts the requested interpreter and schedules them.
The most requested language in the city’s courts is Spanish, followed by Mandarin and Arabic, says Ryan. Of the 301 interpreters employed by New York State’s unified court system, 211 are Spanish interpreters, 70 are for other languages, and there are 17 court interpreter supervisors. Including supervisors, there are a total of 239 interpreters in New York City courts.
Organizations that provide legal services told City Limits that there is a deficit in the number of interpreters, but Ryan characterizes it differently: “There is no shortage. There is a need for interpreters.”
According to Ryan there is a need for interpreters because of the diversity of the city and the number of languages spoken in New York. According to the Endangered Language Alliance, ELA, over 600 languages are spoken in the New York metropolitan area, making it one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.
All courts do not operate in the same way. The criminal courts have a greater number of interpreters, are open late at night and even on weekends. In addition, these courts usually have at least one Spanish interpreter available on night and weekend shifts —an availability only seen in these courts.
The Bronx Criminal Court has 17 interpreters total: 15 for Spanish, one court interpreter supervisor and one interpreter for both Arabic and French. Staff interpreters who are fluent in more than one language earn the same as those who interpret into only one language.
Recently the number of requests for Bengali interpreters and languages from Africa has increased in the Bronx Criminal Court, says Lionel Bajaña, supervisor of interpreters in this court.
One of the most difficult aspects of being an interpreter in criminal court is that you hear “stories of pain and hear about human horror and sometimes you don’t believe what you hear,” says Bajaña. For Leonard Morin, a criminal court interpreter in Manhattan, being an interpreter is mentally and emotionally draining. “Pedophile cases are not easy to deal with,” Morin adds.
Both Bajaña and Morin believe that the demand for Spanish interpreters seems to be covered within the criminal courts, however; the same cannot be said for less common languages. When an interpreter has not been scheduled in advance, the defendant must wait for the interpreter to arrive in court, or the case is postponed to a different date and an interpreter is scheduled for the hearing.
As some advocacy organizations point out, the problem with rescheduled or adjourned cases is that people sometimes make decisions they don’t fully understand, perhaps involving charges they do not grasp, and do so because they believe that this will speed up their proceedings.
“As for how many cases were delayed or adjourned because of the lack of an interpreter, the Office of Language Access does not currently have a tracking mechanism for this information,” emailed Ryan.
According to Legal Services NYC’s survey, the shortage of interpreters in all languages in the courts is one of the most serious problems faced by non-English speaking litigants in New York, even in cases where the interpreter is requested in advance. “Seventy-four percent reported experiencing interpreter-related adjournments.”
Another problem highlighted by defense organizations is that interpreters are not often available in court hallways to help communicate defense attorneys with their clients becoming a major barrier to those non-bilingual attorneys. While interpreters must serve inside courthouses (on the record), their availability in hallways, offices, and other court spaces (off the record) is not mandatory.
“It’s a courtesy and we try to provide assistance to the lawyers in the hallways,” says Bajaña. “We are flexible but we are not always available and we cannot be late for court because of this. I understand that some lawyers get angry, but we respond to our employer, the court system.”
The situation is complicated when these organizations cannot pay for private simultaneous translation services and the lawyers are not bilingual. If a defendant is in custody, “you can’t talk to the person if you don’t know the language,” explains Alice Fontier, director of criminal practice at The Bronx Defenders. So for those who can’t make themselves understood, lawyers say, it’s harder to ensure justice in court.
In Bronx Civil Court, there are 16 interpreters, including the interpreters’ supervisor. They are all Spanish interpreters. If people arrive who need an interpreter from another language, they proceed as in other courts when no interpreter is available at that time: Search the database for an interpreter, schedule the interpreter for that day or reschedule it for another day. But unlike in criminal court, interpreters in these courts do not work on weekends or at night.
Housing courts are usually the busiest and see the highest demand for interpreters. In these courts, “a single interpreter can have on a very busy day about 20 cases in the morning and another 20 in the afternoon,” says David Wayne, interpreter in this court and president of the court’s chapter of interpreters for the district council 37.
According to Wayne, Bronx civil courts need at least three additional interpreters. Ideally, he says, there should be one interpreter for each of the 16 courts.
New York State is committed to providing an interpreter to “a party or witness, or an interested parent or guardian of a minor party in a Family Court proceeding, is unable to understand and communicate in English to the extent that he or she cannot meaningfully participate in the court proceedings,” according to state court rules. And it explicitly emphasizes that “this rule shall not alter or diminish the court’s authority and duty to ensure fairness in the proceedings.”
However, as highlighted in a report published by the New York City Bar Association, the court system was hit by cuts after the 2008 financial crisis. “After reducing staffing by 2,000 positions, the Judiciary’s budget has increased in recent years, and staffing levels have improved modestly,” the report found. “However, there is still a dire need for additional non-judicial staff, particularly in the lower courts. There is also a lack of sufficient court staff, court reporters and interpreters, especially in Criminal, Family and Civil Courts, which leads to delay.”
Shortage of interpreters or need for interpreters?
The total number of interpreters has not increased substantially in over a decade in the NY State Unified Court System even though demand seems to have increased. The 2006 plan of action says that there were “more than 300 full- and part-time court interpreters in over 30 foreign languages and Sign Language.”
For many interpreters, the low compensation they receive is a problem. Interpretation work requires many years of knowledge, a lot of practice and a lot of money invested (for the vast majority of interpreters who went to college). Because of this, many do not last on the job or move to other positions in the courts that pay better, like court clerks.
“Court interpreters in the New York State Unified Court System are paid substantially less than this federal benchmark. This pay disparity does not exist for other job titles in the New York State Unified Court System,” says a report on interpreter’s job reclassification by the National Association of Court Interpreters and Translators.