Three nonprofit groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming that non-English speaking residents are not getting equal access to North Carolina courts.
The Latin American Coalition, the Muslim American Society of Charlotte and the Vietnamese Association of Charlotte said in their May 16 complaint that North Carolina was violating federal civil rights laws by not providing interpreters.
“Can you imagine: Your boss has not paid you a fair wage,” Latin American Coalition Executive Director Jess George told The Associated Press. “You try to take legal action, but you don’t speak the language.”
“You’re already being treated unfairly, and then you can’t even — you don’t have access to the courts like others.”
The groups suspect that the state of North Carolina and the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) “contravene” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to Title VI, “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or subjugated to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Under North Carolina law, a person is only entitled to a translator in domestic violence cases, 50B protective order cases or if they are indigent.
But in practice, a translator is often not available even in those limited circumstances.
In 2009, a Wake County judge declined to grant a protective order for Nimeh Taha Lafi because he could not understand her testimony, the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center’s Khalilah Sabra told Yes Weekly.
“The judge lacks the ability to communicate with the defendant in this situation,” Sabra said. “[Nimeh] doesn’t understand the court rules and there’s no one to explain it to her in a satisfactory way so the judge is becoming increasingly frustrated from [Nimeh’s] inability to understand what the message she’s trying to convey about the ground rules of the testimony.”
“If we don’t hold democracy to its contractual agreement with people in America, we’re not going to take it seriously with respect to other issues like health care and education,” she added.
AOC Communication Director Sharon Gladwell said that the department had been trying to get additional resources for years but the funds had not been provided.
To make matters worse, the Republican-controlled Legislature recently cut AOC’s budget by $38 million, eliminating 300 staff positions.
“These are federal guidelines — they’re not laws,” Gladwell said. “We want to follow the guidelines, but we need additional funding. At a time when we’d like to expand services, our budget is being cut by [$38 million].”