Why justice gets lost in translation for most New Yorkers

By Latoya Joyner |  

February 6, 2017 |  


There are few things scarier for New Yorkers than appearing before a judge in Housing Court or Civil Court. Now imagine if you weren’t fluent in English and were expected to understand complex orders and stipulations that warrant your signature. This is a huge burden that impacts tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

The melting pot that is New York has its advantages and disadvantages. For a family whose first language is not English, the challenges of daily life can overcome routine activities and responsibilities. However, when this creeps into a courtroom, it can have a huge impact on the family, their lives and the greater community. There should be more resources available to accommodate our neighbors.

The New York State Unified Court System notes that it hears more than 3 million cases a year, and provides court-appointed interpreters to over 100 languages through its Office of Language Access. These languages include Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Urdu and Woloff. This expansive suite of options is wonderful, but for those whose native language is not listed, the court is required to hire an interpreter on a per diem basis – a process that can lengthen the stresses of our legal system on individuals unable to understand what exactly is happening from the start. For instance, when a Notice of Petition or a Petition for Nonpayment hits the mailbox from an unscrupulous landlord for Housing Court, these documents are only currently available in English. 

Bronx County is one of the top 15 New York counties that have seen growth among its adult Limited English Proficiency (LEP) population, or those who do not speak English as their primary language, and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English. The Bronx boasts a 12 percent increase between 2005-2013. Even larger, Albany County has grown its adult LED population by 82 percent, and Nassau County rounds out second at 40 percent in the period according to the Center for an Urban Future. Addressing this ever growing and culturally diverse New York community and ensuring equal treatment for all families is the most appropriate route to take. This direction can secure futures for generations to come.   

Expanding language access to not only stipulations, but also notice of petitions, petitions of nonpayment and postcards by filers will make sure that New York families remain in their homes. In the Bronx, approximately 2,000 tenants visit Bronx Housing Court daily and more than 85,000 cases are heard annually, according to research from New Settlement Apartments’ CASA and the Urban Justice Center. Coupled with the fact that the Bronx saw a 10 percent increase in rent from 2005 to 2012, more and more households spend half or more of their monthly income in rent. Extremely low-income and very low-income households are the most rent burdened New Yorkers, according to research from the NYU Furman Center.

Thanks to federal laws applying to language access include the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and executive orders that prohibit the discrimination based on national origin, there are local programs that have provisions requiring language services for LEP individuals. But most of these policies do fall short in addressing the major stipulation, notice of petition issue and requires additional tweaking. Ensuring that all families benefit from having access to their native language in any legal proceeding or enforceable agreement in Housing Court and Civil Court is an unalienable right we must secure for all families – regardless of the language they speak or where they are from.  

Latoya Joyner represents the 77th Assembly District in The Bronx.

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