Imagine walking into a courtroom to fight an eviction notice you can barely read. Imagine giving traumatic testimony about how your husband has battered you for years before a distracted judge speaking in an incomprehensible language. For people with limited English ability, walking into a New York City courtroom can feel like running into a wall of confusion. Although New York’s courts are supposed to be an accessible forum of justice for all, huge language gaps in the civil and criminal courts are systematically disenfranchising immigrant communities, according to research by Legal Services of New York City (LSNYC).
As if immigrants’ legal troubles were not enough these days. On top of draconian federal immigration crackdowns and systemic economic marginalization, LSNYC argues, inadequate language access in local courts leaves many residents with limited-English proficiency (LEP) “in a Kafkaesque maze, plowing through proceedings they do not understand” for months or even years. Though the public’s attention on “criminal” convictions against immigrants has been in the national spotlight due to Trump’s latest spate of deportation raids, lack of access to civil justice has profound constitutional and legal ramifications for a city struggling to protect immigration from growing social hostility.
Although New York courts have stronger language-access protections than the federal system—LEP litigants are generally entitled to court-approved interpretation services in courtrooms and other court offices, while the federal government only guarantees interpretation in criminal and deportation cases—in practice, LSNYC says due process is compromised every day for litigants who lack basic language assistance at hearings. Chronic understaffing for common cases like eviction or divorce leads to erratic hearing schedules, with interpreters forced to “leave early, arrive late, or rush through proceedings,” especially for those speaking languages like Arabic and Urdu, for which the courts lack adequate staffing.
Nearly three-fourths of surveyed legal-aid attorneys reported some of their cases had been adjourned due to lack of language services; over a quarter said most hearings with LEP clients saw delays of at least two hours. And that doesn’t count the tricky informal talks in hallways outside courtrooms, where cases are commonly settled. Here, a tenant might have to rely on friends to translate or just sign whatever contract the landlord gives them.
In criminal courts, despite a formal right to free interpreters, justice delayed is often justice denied, according to the report: Some defendants spend a night in jail because no interpreter is available for their scheduled arraignment date.
Christine Clarke, co-author of the report, says that because of the “creakiness in the system”—in which scheduling often relies on paper records and everything from judges to lawyers is lacking, there is a “feedback loop” between overburdened courts and under-resourced language services.
“Not having language access makes the courts more crowded,” she says, and this backlog delays all court dockets, which then further undermines support services like interpretation. Such bureaucratic sclerosis also exacerbates pressure on other social service systems, as litigants’ whose lives are destabilized by a legal quagmire lose work days, sink into further poverty, and perhaps lose their homes. Inaccurate interpretation in a criminal case could lead to an undeserved guilty verdict, which triggers jail time or even federal deportation proceedings. In contentious divorce cases, parents may lose custody of their children just because they couldn’t afford to pay for interpretation services in family court.