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US Department of Justice finds NC courts restrict access to interpreters

Courts can’t always guarantee individuals who speak little or no English an interpreter, said Ginny Dropkin, a contract interpreter for the Durham courts.

Dropkin, who has worked as a Spanish interpreter in the Durham court system for the past nine years, said interpreters often have a hard time juggling multiple court sessions.

Interpreters are sometimes needed in multiple courtrooms at the same time but only one interpreter is available, she said in an email.

“The court officials in other courtrooms sometimes become frustrated when they have to wait a long time for an interpreter, because it disrupts the efficiency of the courtroom,” she said.

“But there is nothing that the interpreter can do to be in more than one place at a time.”

The challenges Dropkin referred to are examples of recent findings by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The department released a report earlier this month outlining its findings from an investigation into the N.C. court system.

According to the report, the Justice Department found that courts in the state restricted the types of cases in which interpreters are provided and did not properly notify people of their right to an interpreter.

The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts has until March 29 to respond to the U.S. Justice Department’s findings.

If the problems outlined in the report are not voluntarily addressed by the deadline, the Justice Department can file a civil suit against the office of the courts.

The Justice Department’s findings follow a 2010 report on interpreters in the courts by students in the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic at the UNC School of Law, said UNC law professor Deborah Weissman.

She said the report also found that courts did not provide an adequate number of interpreters in court, and in civil cases, no interpreters were offered except for domestic violence cases.

“There is no unified policy out of the Administrative Office of the Courts,” Weissman said. “Their best practice is protocol, but that is not binding.”

The investigation into the state’s courts by the Justice Department was launched after the department received complaints.

The N.C. Justice Center filed a complaint last year on behalf of three immigrant organizations in the state, said Jack Holtzman, staff attorney for the center.

He said a main issue concerning the courts is funding.

“There is insufficient funding to expand served cases,” Holtzman said. “Even with existing funding levels the (Administrative Office of the Courts) has a policy that excludes most civil cases from free interpreters.”

The office of the courts recently issued a statement saying it is disappointed in the federal investigation’s findings, and the office is in the process of reviewing the problems outlined in the report.

The office stated that it believes the department’s seven examples to be isolated cases among the more than 3 million cases disposed of each year.

While the office of the courts has said it is reviewing the department’s findings, funding could be a problem.

The office of the courts said it spends $2.2 million annually in state funds for court interpreting services.

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According to the report, officials said it would cost $1.4 million to expand interpreter services. For the 2011 fiscal year, the office had a $463.8 million budget.

Weissman said the Justice Department’s findings should lead to an improved court system and the proper use of interpreters.

“What should come out of this is an allocation of resources so that interpreters are readily available for people that need them.”

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