Access to Justice Section asks attorneys to complete survey on court interpreter services

Issue December/January 2008 By Jeffrey L. Wolf

The number of Massachusetts residents who are foreign-born continues to rise. As of 2004, 14.3 percent of Massachusetts residents (over 906,000) were born in another country, compared to 9.4 percent in 1980. The share of immigrants in our workforce has nearly doubled from 8.8 percent in 1980 to 17.0 percent. As of 2000, 43 percent of our immigrant population had a modest to severe English-speaking deficit. Among Massachusetts residents aged 5 and above with incomes below 187 percent of the poverty line, an estimated 405,000 had limited English proficiency.

In court proceedings, even a modest English-speaking deficit can raise significant barriers to access to justice.

"Maria," who has limited English proficiency, had a restraining order to protect her from a former boyfriend. She later received notice to be in Lowell District Court because the former boyfriend's sister took out a 209A against her. When charges were brought against the ex-boyfriend for violating the restraining order, the sister allegedly threatened Maria not to testify. Also, the sister allegedly had been calling Maria about the ex-boyfriend's child support, and Maria allegedly left a message on the sister's answering service.

Maria had to go from Fall River to Lowell to oppose the sister's 209A. The court did not have an interpreter for the hearing, and after several hours, the judge offered to continue the hearing to a later date so that an interpreter could be present. Maria had to decline because she could not afford to go all the way to Lowell again. The judge held the hearing without an interpreter and allowed each party to describe Maria's message, which was in her native language. The sister characterized the message as threatening, which Maria denied. The judge extended the order for one year.

Non-English speakers have the right to the assistance of an interpreter in Massachusetts courts throughout the legal proceeding and from a "certified" or "qualified" interpreter. General Laws, c. 221C, § 2, added by St. 1986, c. 627.

On April 18, 2003, the Administrative Office of the Trial Court promulgated Standards and Procedures of the Office of Court Interpreter Services (OCIS) under the authority of G.L., c. 221C, § 7(d).

"With the promulgation of these Standards … the manner in which interpreter services are provided in judicial proceedings will be formally established and consistently applied. The adoption of these Standards … will mark an important milestone in the development and professionalism of court interpreter services in Massachusetts."

Now is a good time to assess how the development and professionalism of court interpreter services in Massachusetts are progressing.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a leading statewide legal services support and advocacy program, legal services' Family Law Task Force, and the MBA's Access to Justice Section Council have developed and are conducting an online Language Access Survey to learn about the extent to which interpreter services are being provided as contemplated by the Standards and Procedures in the various courts of the commonwealth. The Access to Justice Section Council is asking members of the MBA to submit these surveys. Members have received an e-blast to respond to the survey.

The Language Access Survey will serve as a tool for specifying individual courts where the OCIS program of providing interpreters is working well and those where improvements are needed. The survey is designed to identify both best practices that should be disseminated throughout the system and poor practices that should be corrected.

The OCIS Standards and Practices contain important features which the survey seeks to assess: Each court has a staff person responsible for requesting the assignment of interpreters on behalf of the court; case priorities are established; interpreters provide assistance outside the courtroom; OCIS has a procedure for providing interpreters in emergency situations; the interpreter to whose assistance each "non-English speaker" has a right is a professional acting in an official capacity; court interpreters are bound by a Code of Professional Conduct.

To make the Language Access Survey as comprehensive as possible, we are working to have a broad and diverse set of respondents. The survey was launched in February 2008. Legal services has disseminated the survey to social services organizations, including domestic violence service providers and minority community social service providers. To date, we have received 56 responses, apart from the MBA membership. We anticipate that a large number of MBA members care deeply about this access to justice issue and will fill out a survey about at least one court. The Access to Justice Section Council encourages members to disseminate it further to colleagues and associates who may have valuable input to share.

Jeffrey L. Wolf is a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a member of the MBA's Access to Justice Section Council.

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