MEDIA RELEASE: U.S. Department of Justice finds lack of court access for non-English speakers in NC violates Civil Rights Act

The ruling is in response to an administrative complaint filed by the NC Justice Center on behalf of the Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society of Charlotte

RALEIGH (March 8, 2012) – Lack of court access for non-English speakers in North Carolina violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Department of Justice determined today.

In May 2011, three North Carolina nonprofits filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Justice, claiming that the North Carolina court system has failed to provide interpreters for individuals with limited English proficiency in civil and some criminal court proceedings. Without an interpreter, many plaintiffs and defendants are left in the dark during critical court proceedings.

The complaint – filed by the NC Justice Center on behalf of the Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Association of Charlotte – requested an investigation into the state’s justice system to determine whether the lack of foreign language interpreters violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by state courts and also prohibits those courts from administering programs that subject individuals to similar discrimination.

In a letter and report to the NC Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) summarizing its findings, the U.S. Department of Justice “determined after a comprehensive investigation that the AOC's policies and practices discriminate on the basis of national origin, in violation of federal law, by failing to provide limited English proficient (LEP) individuals with meaningful access to state court proceedings and operations.”

The Department of Justice found that AOC’s policies resulted in significant harms, including “longer incarceration as a result of continuances caused by the failure to locate an interpreter; serious conflicts of interest caused by allowing state prosecutors to interpret for defendants in criminal proceedings; [and] requiring pro se and indigent litigants to proceed with domestic violence, child custody, housing eviction, wage dispute, and other important proceedings without an interpreter."

The Department of Justice further noted that, according to AOC’s own estimates, the cost of expanding interpreter services would be approximately $1.4 million, only 0.3% of AOC’s 2011 budget of $463.8 million. This is a small price to pay for a more fair and accessible system of justice in North Carolina.

In fact, it is possible that providing greater access to interpreters could save the state money in the long run. The Department of Justice pointed out that compliance can actually save the state money, since it can prevent appeals and needless delays. According to the Department of Justice, “other states – including Colorado, Georgia, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania – have taken advantage of [federal resources] to provide greater access to their court operations for LEP individuals.”

The Department of Justice has requested that the NC AOC “notify [them] by March 29, 2012, if [they] are interested in voluntarily remedying the violations of federal law” identified. If the AOC refuses to take corrective action, the North Carolina courts run the risk of losing millions of dollars in federal funding.

For more information, contact: Jack Holtzman, Staff Attorney, NC Justice Center,jack@ncjustice.org, (919) 856-2165.