What Non-English Speakers Should Know About Court Interpreters | COMMENTARY

Contributed commentary by Patricia Jones, managing attorney, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands’ Columbia office.

Receiving a notice to appear in court can be a stressful experience for anyone, but even more so for those who aren’t fluent in English. Middle Tennessee’s exponential growth of the last decade has included an influx of non-English-speaking residents, but many courts outside of Davidson County still lack a reliable process for managing civil cases in which a litigant speaks a non-English language. Civil cases can include matters involving evictions, child custody, orders of protection, debt and bankruptcy.

Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) maintains a database of certified and registered interpreters. While the clerks of courts in rural counties try to schedule interpreters for hearings, it is not their official job. Tennessee rules do not specify who is responsible for doing so. Complicating the matter is that many AOC-certified interpreters are located in Nashville and have to drive longer distances to rural courts.

This forces non-English speakers to try to navigate court hearings in a language they don’t understand — putting them at a significant disadvantage in matters that can affect their basic needs and stability. Though some people attempt a workaround by bringing an English-conversant family member or friend to serve as a translator, the legal terms and jargon used during court hearings can limit the effectiveness of this approach.

As an attorney at Legal Aid Society, I assist clients in eight rural Middle Tennessee counties where it’s not uncommon to see civil court hearings involving non-English speakers proceed without an interpreter present (in Nashville, it’s standard practice to have interpreters at both civil and criminal hearings).

While everyone should get a free interpreter if they are not fluent in English, the court does have discretion in determining whether an interpreter is needed. So, it is very important that the court recognize a person’s need for a court interpreter. While it’s legally unclear if civil courts are required to provide interpreters (they’re a Constitutional right for criminal matters), it’s certainly the right thing for them to be doing.

If you’re a non-English speaker with a court proceeding coming up, it’s important to understand how to advocate for yourself and have your best chance of having an interpreter present in court:

  • As soon as possible after receiving your notice to appear (and definitely at least a week before your hearing), contact your court clerk and tell them you need an interpreter for the day of your hearing. It’s best to do this in person and submit your request in writing so it’s documented and placed in the court’s files. Since the request will need to be submitted in English, see if a friend or family member can help you write the request — and state clearly in the request that they assisted, so the court doesn’t assume that you wrote the request by yourself.
  • If you don’t receive a response to your request, call the Administrative Office of the Courts, which is responsible for maintaining the list of interpreters, at 615-741-2687.
  • If you qualify for Legal Aid Society’s services, we might be able to provide legal assistance. (We regularly help non-English speaking clients file petitions for Orders of Protection, for instance.) Call our main number at 1-800-238-1443, where you can leave a message in your native language and receive a prompt callback. The Nashville Hispanic Bar Association (615-701-7957) also offers legal assistance to non-English speaking clients.
  • If you show up the day of your hearing and there’s no interpreter present, ask for a continuance (the legal term for delaying proceedings until another day). Take an English-speaking friend or family member along to make the request, if necessary. Although the judge doesn’t have to grant your request, it will be documented in the court record, which is important. If you do receive a continuance and a translator still isn’t present on the rescheduled date, you can request another continuance.

When in court, non-English speakers often make a great effort to be agreeable, nodding their heads even if they don’t understand a question they’re being asked. But it’s important for people to be clear about their limitations so that judges recognize when a situation is unfair. If you don’t understand, say you don’t understand.

The best way to create awareness, and hopefully improve this current situation, is to begin documenting examples of this situation repeatedly taking place — creating a “paper trail” that can potentially strengthen your own case or lead to a future court case in which the process of appointing interpreters is challenged.

Patricia Jones

Published by Clarksville Now on May 31, 2024.


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