A Dialogue with Lawyers and Community Partners

What challenges do interpreters face in the courts? What about the immigrant court users who rely on them? And what can lawyers do to help?

These are the issues Sakhi for South Asian Women Executive Director Purvi Shah spoke about as attorneys and advocates convened at the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn on October 15th.

Purvi began by pointing out the wealth of expertise in the room of about 20 staff, lawyers, and community advocates.

She spoke about the origins of Sakhi’s court interpreter work and its purpose—to ensure equal access to justice for all court users with limited proficiency in English, including survivors of domestic violence.

Purvi also provided details of two surveys created by a coalition co-chaired by Sakhi, called Justice Speaks: Initiative on Ensuring Language Access, which examined the experiences and concerns of court users and, later, specifically that of interpreters.

She noted positive results obtained through Sakhi’s advocacy, such as the 2006 workplan rolled out by the Office of Court Administration, which increased the pay of per diem interpreters and established a standardized English test for all interpreters.

Purvi also pointed to areas in need of improvement, including what the surveyed interpreters perceived as a lack of understanding of their role among attorneys and judges alike.

Attendees responded enthusiastically to the presentation and readily acknowledged the existence of flaws in the status quo.


“I have never even thought of explaining to my client the role of an interpreter,” one senior attorney conceded during the discussion portion of the event. “But now I will.”

Other lawyers noted instances where judges would yell at their client for not always speaking through the interpreter in cases where their client preferred to speak in English even if they lacked English proficiency. Another attorney observed that the verbal scolding some survivors received at the hands of judges was not too far removed from the abuse they had already experienced at the hands of their partners.

The dialogue highlighted the need for further discussion and implementation of change in the court system, and, therefore, the need for continued advocacy carried out by Sakhi in this important policy arena.