New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

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Almost 25 million people in the U.S. have limited proficiency in English (LEP), meaning that they can protect their rights, children, homes and safety in court only with the assistance of an interpreter. When competent interpreters are not available in civil cases, judges cannot accurately find facts, litigants cannot comply with court orders, the public loses faith in the justice system, and states cannot enforce their civil laws. The federal Civil Rights Act mandates access to interpreters for LEP individuals in all civil cases in courts receiving federal funds. Nonetheless, an in-depth examination of court interpreter services in the 35 states with the highest proportion of LEP individuals finds that in 46 percent of these states judges can deny interpreters in some or all civil cases, in 80 percent judges can charge LEP individuals for interpreters, and in 37 percent judges can use interpreters whose competence has never been assessed, even when credentialed interpreters are available. In an attempt to remedy the situation, this report lists courts’ legal obligations, provides guidelines for the use of interpreters in state courts, and highlights best practices.

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