Non-English speakers struggle to have their voices heard in housing court

Queens Legal Services attorney Catherine Barreda uses an online translator tool to interpret court proceedings for a client.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

Queens Legal Services attorney Catherine Barreda uses an online translator tool to interpret court proceedings for a client. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

By Phineas Rueckert 

The fourth floor of the Queens Civil Court, where housing court is located, was relatively calm on a Thursday morning. But even on a quiet day, an ongoing case was made more complicated by a familiar problem — limited language access. 

Across New York City courts, more than one-quarter of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) respondents experienced wait times of two hours or more for interpretation services, according to research from the Legal Services NYC Civil Rights Justice Initiative. And Queens — with a population of more than 2 million people who speak more than 160 languages — may be the epicenter of this delayed justice. 

The Eagle accompanied Queens Legal Services Tenant Rights Coalition supervising attorney Catherine Barreda through the Civil Courthouse Thursday to understand the challenges that non-English speaking individuals encounter in the court system. Barreda was on her way to meet with a client, a monolingual Korean speaker who is being sued by her landlord for nonpayment. 

On the way upstairs, she gestured to a small sign in the hallway that says in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and a number of other languages: “Interpreters are available at no cost.” 

The signs are relatively new — part of an initiative by the Office of Court Administration to increase language access to non-English-speakers in courtrooms citywide. So too are slideshows that play in the courtrooms indicating, among other things, the right to interpretation services, guaranteed in all New York civil court proceedings. In contrast, interpreters are not guaranteed in federal civil courts.

Despite the OCA’s best efforts to increase language access in Queens courts, the logistics of coordinating interpretation services in a borough as diverse as Queens means that many tenants whose rights have been violated continue to fall through the cracks in the system, Barreda said. Finding an interpreter also slows down the process, further clogging court’s perpetually full dockets.

Even with advocates like Barreda on their side, many clients struggle to have their voices heard — and understood — in civil court.  

Queens Civil Court on a relatively quiet Thursday morning.   Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

Queens Civil Court on a relatively quiet Thursday morning.

Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

Waiting for justice 

Barreda met her client just after 9:30 a.m. Because the client spoke very little English, the two communicated through a combination of hand gestures and Google Translate. 

Her client is being sued for nonpayment of rent, but Barreda said she is arguing that the rent has either been paid (with three months paid up front, in addition to a security deposit) or is not owed because her family was “constructively evicted due to a house fire.” The fire happened back in December, after which point her client moved her 16- and 20-year-old daughters to a different, safer apartment, but stayed in the fire-affected apartment without paying rent because she could not afford to move all three of them to a bigger one.

Barreda said she has worked with this client before and they have devised a system of communication that works fairly well outside of the courtroom — though it normally would not be allowed in front of the judge because it is not being provided by an official interpreter.

When, in the past, Barreda has suggested calling in a language access line on speakerphone to speed up the process, she has also been told no. Her options in court, she said, are to wait for the interpreter to arrive or to proceed without one.

The sole Korean interpreter to serve Queens Civil Court did not arrive until an hour later, and was quickly called to translate another case. His services are in high demand because he only appears at the courthouse once a week.

Juggling the language needs of Queens residents in housing court is a complicated endeavor. 

More than 1.2 million Queens residents spoke a language other than English, according to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey. Of those languages, Spanish was the most prevalent, with over half a million household speakers. An additional 200,000 spoke Chinese at home. Bengali, Korean and Russian rounded out the top five languages other than English spoken in the borough.  

Around one in six households had no adult over the age of 14 who spoke English fluently. And in housing court, this can have adverse consequences beyond just wait times, tenants rights advocates told the Eagle. 

“On the broadest level, it’s a justice issue, it’s an anti-discrimination issue,” Veronica Cook, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, said. “People shouldn’t have less access to court and to the court system and process just because they are not fluent in English.” 

Even before getting to the courtroom, however, language access can pose challenges. At the clerk’s office, LEP individuals may not know how to request an interpreter or even that they have the right to interpreters or certain translated forms, Cook said. 

“I’ve seen and my colleagues have told me of instances where they’ve seen people stand to the side in confusion or someone walk away because they think they’ve been told, ‘We can’t help you,’ when they’ve really been told, ‘Wait here, we’re getting someone,” she said.

A schedule on the far wall of one of the courtrooms indicated the monthly interpreter availability. The list is a complicated matrix of timetables that — along with the rest of the process — can be especially confusing for “pro se” clients, who represent themselves in court, Barreda said.

Spanish is available every day, with two interpreters. Fifteen other languages are regularly available, including Bengali, Haitian Creole, Urdu and Hebrew, but only on specific days. For less common languages, tenants must request an interpreter before a court date or adjournment is issued.

Even when interpreters are available, however, “some of [them] are very slow,” said Priam Saywack, senior staff attorney at Queens Legal Services. “I get the feeling some interpreters aren’t interpreting everything.” 

A sign in Housing Court advertises interpreter services.   Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

A sign in Housing Court advertises interpreter services.

Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

Speeding up and slowing down

New rules put in place by the OCA to speed up trials through summary proceedings also mean that the need to provide interpretation can be viewed, by the court, as a hassle, Barreda said. For many “pro se” clients, she added, a sense of embarrassment at holding up the court can lead tenants with a limited grasp of English to represent themselves without an interpreter or a lawyer present. 

On several occasions Thursday, Barreda was asked, by both court officers and the judge, if she wanted to proceed without an interpreter — but she resisted. Making sure that her client was able to understand what was happening and be present in the courtroom, she said, was more important to her than pushing the case quickly through court, which typically benefits landlords at the expense of tenants. 

At around 11:25 a.m., just under two hours after she arrived at the courthouse, Barreda’s client’s case was finally called. (She had been asked to appear earlier, but neither the landlord’s representative nor the Korean interpreter were available at the time.)

The hearing itself lasted no more than a few minutes. Her landlord’s attorney asked for an adjournment of the case, but there was some confusion as to how to find a date that would work with the Korean interpreter’s schedule. 

Eventually the adjournment was settled for August 15 — more than a full month from the date of the hearing — despite pushback from the landlord’s attorney, who didn’t think the client should need to be present in the courtroom and asked for an earlier date.

On this particular day, Barreda’s client was generally fortunate, with her total time in court shorter than many clients have to wait for an interpreter. 

Increasing access

Despite the challenges, the Office of Court Administration has been working to improve language access across the city, and in Queens specifically, in various ways. 

OCA launched an ad campaign and put up signs in every courtroom to indicate to LEPs that they have the right to an interpreter. They also increased the number of testing dates for court interpreters from bi-annually to once a month in an effort to bring more interpreters into the system.

“In terms of the general trends that we’ve been seeing in language access, the availability of interpreters on the whole, it seems, has improved in the past few years,” Cook said.

But the struggles facing immigrant and LEP communities in court underlie the greater challenge of protecting tenants from landlord abuse outside of court. Many tenants, Barreda said, don’t even get to that point. “A lot of folks that aren’t English speakers don’t even make it to housing court,” she said. “They just move.”