Lack of Interpreters Hampers Equal Justice, Court Report Says

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(Host) A special committee of the Vermont Supreme Court says a growing number of Vermonters are being denied equal access to justice in the state’s civil and family court system. The committee issued a report today saying that the courts don’t have a process in place to provide defendants who don’t understand English with foreign language interpreters.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The Court committee, which has been studying this issue for two years, believes that this is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

In its report, the committee concludes that the state’s population is growing more diverse and that the need to provide all courts with foreign language interpreters has become an issue of due process for defendants who are unable to speak or understand English. The Vermont judicial system does provide interpreters, at state expense, for individuals charged with criminal crimes but no provisions are made for civil and family court cases.

Speaking at a press conference in the chambers of the Supreme Court, spokesperson Sheila Reed says the current system has some major legal flaws:

(Reed) “A person that needs an interpreter must find their own and must pay for their own. Often those interpreters are untrained volunteers – such as friends, relatives, you may get children of the litigant. There are serious conflict of interest issues when that happens. Fundamental rights are adjudicated in civil cases and we believe that people who cannot fully participate in the proceeding because they cannot understand or communicate with the court are denied equal access to justice.”

(Kinzel) Reed says it will be expensive to fully implement the recommendations of her committee but she says it’s a cost that the state must be willing to pay if all Vermonters are to receive equal access to justice:

(Reed) “We recognize that in order to do this the courts will need significant additional resources and will no doubt require a legislative budget increase.”

(Kinzel) Supreme Court Justice Denise Johnson is hoping that a statewide policy can be adopted in the coming months that will bring foreign language interpreters to Vermont’s civil and family court system:

(Johnson) “Where people who don’t speak English are having their rights determined – they’re being evicted from their homes, their custody of children is being determined, domestic violence issues are being determined – you can consider what it must be like to be in a court proceeding where you know you’re the focus of the proceeding or your rights or your children and you have no idea what’s going on. And that’s a real lack of access.”

(Kinzel) The full Supreme Court will review these recommendations next month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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