Bar News - January 15, 2014
Court Reluctantly Adopts New Language Services Plan
By: Kristen Senz
A formal plan to provide free interpreter services to all litigants, witnesses, and others with a significant interest in court proceedings in New Hampshire drew a strongly worded dissent from Supreme Court Justice Robert Lynn.
In an order issued last month, the NH Supreme Court adopted the NH Judicial Branch Language Services Plan, which codifies services that have long been offered to limited-English speakers in state courts. The existing program was effective, Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis wrote, but the court opted to adopt the new plan “based primarily upon our assessment of the risk in not doing so.”
The court cited a 2010 letter from the US Department of Justice, which advised that states not providing free interpreter services could face consequences, including a loss of federal funding for a variety of state programs.
Dalianis wrote that based on the 2010 letter, not providing cost-free interpreter services “would likely be viewed by the DOJ as a violation of federal statutes prohibiting national origin discrimination. We note that the requirements that are asserted by the DOJ to be binding upon all state courts, do not apply to the federal courts.”
The court further explained that any potential legal challenge to the DOJ’s requirement could be “exceedingly costly.”
Justice Lynn, in his dissent, said he believes the federal guidelines in the letter were overly intrusive and disagrees with the provision in the plan that gives free interpreter services to non-indigent, limited-English speakers, regardless of how long they’ve been in the country.
“... [W]hile persons have no power to change their place of origin, they obviously can change their English proficiency by learning to speak English,” Lynn wrote. “There can be no serious suggestion that, without the new plan, courts in New Hampshire could be viewed as intentionally discriminating against [limited-English proficient] individuals because of their national origins.”
Under the new plan, the court will better publicize the availability of free interpreter services through its website, courthouse brochures and signs in courtrooms and clerks’ offices.
The courts contract interpreter services through the Language Bank, a Concord-based organization employing interpreters who speak more than 20 languages. It is the responsibility of the private attorney, public defender, county attorney or attorney general to provide interpretation and translation services for witness interviews, pretrial transcriptions and translations.
In addition to formalizing the language services plan, the court adopted a code of professional standards for interpreters, which includes prohibiting interpreters from later serving as witnesses, among other “canons.” The plan also outlines procedures for filing complaints against interpreters and states that a curriculum for training judges with respect to providing language services is under development.
Interpreters were needed in New Hampshire courtrooms more than 2,000 times in 2011, according to court statistics. The majority translated Spanish, but interpreters were also used in cases where litigants spoke Arabic, Portuguese, Mandarin and 25 other languages.
The new language services plan went into effect Jan. 1.