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Courts, officially, to provide interpreters free of charge

Starting today, limited-English speakers using courthouse services in New Hampshire have free and ready access to interpreters, according to a recent order by the state’s Supreme Court – an order that, aside from publicity requirements, essentially codifies the informal system already in place.

Under the ruling, issued last week, all state courts are required to provide interpreter services to litigants, witnesses or anyone whom a judge deems to have a significant interest in a court proceeding, or anyone who seeks court records and related information. The move stems from a 2010 federal directive, which noted that a failure to provide free language assistance would likely be viewed as discriminatory and punishable in turn.

“A legal challenge to the DOJ’s requirements could be exceedingly costly,” Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis wrote in the order. “Further, aside from the substantial cost of litigation, which would be borne by New Hampshire taxpayers, sanctions apparently could include loss of federal funding for a broad range of state programs.”

Courts in New Hampshire have long provided limited English speakers with interpreters, but until now the system has been more or less tacit.

“Although the Judicial Branch has provided such services for many years, and we believe that our current program effectively addresses the needs of (limited English proficient) individuals speaking some 30 native languages, we conclude that a comprehensive, publicly available plan will better assure reliability and consistency of these services,” Dalianis wrote.

Each of Dalianis’s four counterparts agreed on the need for aid, but in an aggressively worded dissent, Justice Robert Lynn took issue with the provision of the plan that allows financially stable immigrants who have been in the United States for several years to partake of the language service free of charge. The gratuity, Lynn said, sends the wrong message to new Americans.

“While we should not expect those who come here from afar to eschew their customs or traditions, including their language, that contribute so richly to the strength and diversity of our culture, an integral part of the concept of America as a ‘melting pot’ is that people who choose to immigrate here will meld into the basic fabric of our society,” he wrote. “At the very least, part of this integration process must include an obligation to learn our common language – English.”

Under the new plan, which was released alongside the court’s order, the state judicial branch will better publicize the available aid through its website, with brochures and signs in courthouses, and through verbal notification from court staff. For challenging encounters, staff can also use flash cards inscribed with “I speak” in multiple languages.

Lynn noted that the increased publicity could result in a greater state expense if more people taking advantage of the service. But Don Goodnow, the administrative director of the state’s Office of the Courts, said he did not anticipate a significant change in usage.

“It might cause a slight increase, but most people know to request an interpreter,” he said.

The new plan also stipulates that assistance will be provided in person whenever feasible. In some instances, though, including short court proceedings, they will be offered remotely, via telephone. Goodnow said attorneys typically secure interpreters in advance when limited English-speaking clients have longer hearings scheduled. Proceedings will be rescheduled if an in-person interpreter is required and not on hand, according to the plan.

The courts contract interpreter services to the Language Bank, a Concord-based firm specializing in more than 20 foreign languages. A supervisor at the company said this week that he does not anticipate any change given the new order.

According to data cited in the plan, interpreters were deployed on roughly 2,000 occasions in 2011. Of those, 1,422 were used for Spanish, 118 for Arabic, 100 for Portuguese, and 51 each for Mandarin and Vietnamese. As of 2009, 2.4 percent of the state’s population above the age of 5 had limited to no English-speaking ability. Nearly 34 percent of Spanish speakers surveyed in the state that year did not speak English well.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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