The Department of Justice has released startling evidence that language barriers are leading to serious injustices in courts in North Carolina. In a March 8 letter, DOJ warned North Carolina that its ongoing failure to provide court interpreters in civil cases, and in some criminal cases, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars courts and other recipients of federal funding from providing worse services to people on the basis of English language ability.
DOJ reports that prosecutors in Wake and Durham counties ask people with limited English proficiency to plead guilty and then, assuming the role of “interpreters,” convey the guilty pleas to the courts. A judge relying solely on “prosecutorial interpreting” cannot know whether the person is even aware that a guilty plea is being entered, much less whether he understands the charges and consequences. When the federal government then deports the person, it cannot know whether it is deporting an innocent person.
The quality of justice is equally in doubt in civil cases. In 2010, a mother in Wake County lost permanent custody of her children after a trial in which she struggled to understand basic facts because she had limited command of the English language. Although she told the judge about her language difficulty, the court provided no interpreter. She also had no lawyer to help. Communication was so poor that at the end of the case she did not even understand that the judge’s ruling would cause her to lose her children.