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Bar News - July 6, 2007

¿Usted habla Español? Courts, Attorneys Strive to Overcome Language Barriers


Concord District Court Clerk Sharon Shurtleff holds out a translation card with phrases in 19 languages.  The client points to his or her language on the card, a tool that court staff uses to help identify and assist non-English speakers who come to court.

According to the US Census Bureau there are approximately 116,000 New Hampshire residents that speak a language other than English in the home. That’s nearly 10 percent of the state population. That percentage is almost doubled in cities like Nashua and Manchester.


 “We file roughly 225,000 new cases each year. The percentage of those cases that need a translator or interpreter is very small,” said Donald Goodnow, Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. However, he adds, the number of such cases is rising: “The need for more translating and interpreting services is growing very quickly.”


That is why virtually every part of the New Hampshire legal system, from the courts to lawyers in private practice are confronting new challenges and developing new solutions for non-English-speaking residents. The majority of non-English speakers that need interpreting or translating services in the NH courts speak Spanish as a primary language. French, Arabic, and the Slavic languages follow in terms of the number of users in need of language assistance.


In-Court Services


In 2006, Goodnow presented NH State Senator Dave Gottesman, who is also a Nashua trial attorney and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a memo laying out the importance of interpreting services in the courts. The memo aimed to better facilitate access to the justice system by non-native residents who speak some English.  In the memo Goodnow stated:


We must provide qualified interpreters to ensure that a fast- growing minority of New Hampshire citizens is guaranteed access to state courts. There are two related consequences of a failure to provide competent interpreter services:


1.                   Lack of meaningful communication will create grounds for appeals to trial court decisions; we may have to try some cases twice.

2.                   Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that federal financial assistance recipients develop programs to ensure that a fast-growing minority of New Hampshire citizens is guaranteed access to state courts. Failure to provide qualified interpreters would jeopardize our entitlement to federal funds.


In March 2006, New Hampshire courts signed a contract with Lutheran Social Services of Northern New England. In return, the organization’s LanguageBank has agreed to provide in-court interpretation and translation to New Hampshire’s non-English speaking legal participants in matters both criminal and civil.        


The LanguageBank has skilled interpreters and translators of more than 20 different world languages.


John M. Safford, Clerk of the Hillsborough County Superior Court North, is pleased so far with the LanguageBank partnership. Hillsborough County supports the largest population of non-English speaking residents in the state. “With the LanguageBank it’s very easy. In the past there was some difficulty, especially with the more obscure languages. There were a few people we used regularly, but it definitely took more time,” Safford said.


The judicial branch also joined the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Interpreter Consortium, in partnership with Maine and Vermont. The Consortium is a multi-state association that shares information, including various issues, successes, and failures in addressing state court obligations to provide interpreter services. The organization also provides testing resources in language knowledge and skill level that may be used to certify future interpreters.


According to Safford, court administrators hope to use the consortium to learn what does and does not work in efforts to meet foreign language demands.        


It is clear with census data, court records, and administrative input that the increased number of New Hampshire residents without English speaking skills is still growing. However, if the New Hampshire court system maintains vigilance and a proactive stance toward the issue, the courts can change along with the population.


Out-of-Court Services


At the same time, the Administrative Office of the Courts began taking necessary steps to bring in-court language solutions to non-English speakers; civil legal services agencies also began addressing  the needs for out-of-court language assistance. The Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), and the NHBA Pro Bono’s DOVE Project have brought in qualified bilingual attorneys to translate legal literature and even speak with clients.


“It [the growing number of non-English speakers] affects the very population that we’re trying to reach,” said McNamara, LARC’s executive director. “It used to be that we couldn’t speak to people in the English-as-a-second-language community unless they had someone, usually a family member, serving as an interpreter.”


And although the language barrier – and often a culture barrier – still poses a challenge to her group, tension has eased significantly since LARC’s hiring in 2000 of attorney Jeffrey Goodrich, who is fluent in Spanish.  From the time he began working at LARC he has dealt almost exclusively with New Hampshire’s Spanish-speaking population.


“He’s always been given those [Spanish] calls as they came in. But five years ago we changed the phone system and inserted the Spanish menu system,” said McNamara. “From that time forward the calls have really been increasing.”


On top of Goodrich’s work with the toll-free helpline, McNamara said he also works extensively in the community; developing networks within a population that is still wary of the telecommunications based culture in the United States.


“It’s rare for non-English speakers to make cold-calls to our service. There’s a culture barrier when it comes to phone use,” said McNamara. “You have to earn these people’s trust before they will speak to us over the phone, especially when it involves private legal matters.”


The Domestic Violence Emergency Project (DOVE), a division of the NHBA’s Pro Bono Referral Program, is also trying to reach out to a multi-lingual community. In cooperation with the LanguageBank and fluent Spanish-speaking attorney Amy Manzelli, of Sulloway & Hollis, DOVE put together pamphlets in Spanish. DOVE is also in the process of developing pamphlets in other languages such as French and Arabic.


Pamela Dodge, Coordinator of the DOVE project, believes that with her program, accurate translation and effective language availability is essential.


“In 2007, DOVE Project referrals for legal representation from non-English- speaking clients have increased from seven percent to 12 percent for the same six-month time period in 2006. This segment of our population is highly vulnerable given the daily challenges they must overcome to communicate their needs within our communities,” said Dodge. “The stakes are too high for potential DOVE clients to risk using literature that is inaccurate or poorly translated.”


These organizations continue to develop new strategies for ensuring the availability of foreign language resources and are quick to note that the production of materials for non-English speakers is an essential part of their work. 

 Craig Sander is Bar News Associate Editor. This is his first article for Bar News.


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