Does A Language Barrier Affect Your Access to Justice?

Language Barrier Justice

Access to women’s health services and polling places have been in the news recently. Access to the court system, although it rarely makes the headlines, might be an even bigger issue.

Roughly a fifth of people speak a language other than English when they are at home. This proportion has tripled since the 1980s.

Most federal courts have highly qualified interpreters who are available on demand. State and local courts are a different matter.

In many states, interpreters must only score 70 percent on certification exams. In contrast, court reporters in New York must score 96 percent.

Furthermore, some courts do not have multi-lingual signs which state that services are available. Therefore, many eligible people don’t ask.

Everyone pays a price when interpretation services are nonexistent or inadequate. Hearings get rescheduled, which means another lost day of work for both parties.

Furthermore, lack of interpretation is grounds for an appeal, which means the whole thing might have to be done over.


New York lawmakers recently extended the eviction moratorium in the Empire State. But, there’s a catch. Landlords may still file eviction cases and they can win them, if tenants cannot convince judges that they are currently experiencing an economic hardship.

These cases normally go to a local Justice of the Peace court.

Interpreters are often unavailable at these hearings unless the requesting party books one months in advance.

Alternative services usually aren’t available. Usually, tenants do not have attorneys, so a lawyer cannot double as a translator. And, judges often do not allow friends or family members to serve in this capacity.

Fortunately, these hearings are usually rather informal. A judge listens to both sides, considers the evidence, and then usually makes a decision on the spot. As mentioned, neither side usually has a lawyer. Moreover, the usual rules of procedure don’t apply.

If you have limited English skills and no interpreter is available, it can be a challenge.

Regardless of their English proficiency, many people write their statements in advance. Give copies to the judge and your landlord, then have a friend read it out loud.

The statement should briefly outline your economic hardship. Since there are only a few minutes allotted for these hearings, the judge is not interested in the details.

In your written statement, mention that you cannot speak English well, but you are trying your best.

As for evidence, current bank statements are the best way to prove a hardship. Comparative bank statements, like one from August 2020 and one from August 2021, are even better.

If you have made any partial rent payments, highlight them. Good intentions, like “I meant to pay,” usually don’t count.

One final thought. If you are taking care of the property and are basically a good tenant, your landlord does not really want to evict you. The landlord just wants the rent. So, you might be able to resolve the case before the hearing.

Negligence Claims

Usually, a New York personal injury attorney either serves as a translator or makes all the necessary arrangements in these situations. Either way, most limited English proficiency victims can be certain that their voices are heard.

Frequently, there is a language barrier even if both attorney and client speak fluent English. Some attorneys speak Legalese instead of English.

If that happens to you, say something to your lawyer. If your attorney looks down on you because of that request or refuses to change, it might be time to get a new lawyer.

It’s very important that everyone is on the same page in these situations.

The damages in a personal injury case usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages are sometimes available as well. So, there is a lot at stake.

Out-of-Court Settlements

Most eviction and negligence claims settle out of court, but most courts do not provide interpreters during these negotiations. If you need such services, we can connect you with an advocacy or other group which will provide one at little or no cost.

Frequently, a settlement negotiation is your day in court. You need to make sure that the other party in the lawsuit clearly knows your side of the story. Otherwise, the outcome might be one-sided.

Furthermore, it’s important to get things right the first time. Once cases settle, it’s very difficult to reopen them.

Basically, you must prove that you were unable to express yourself and that inability materially affected the outcome. These things are not easy to prove.

There are language barriers in the court system, but they are not insurmountable. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We have many native foreign language speakers on staff who are available to help make sure you understand the legal process.