LAS VEGAS -- Like many of the people waiting to turn in paperwork at Clark County’s family court, truck driver Ruben Vargas is here because of a custody battle. Whenever his ex doesn’t let him see their 6-year-old boy, he takes her to court.
But since Vargas only speaks Spanish, he’s had to pay for his own interpreter every time.
“I didn’t expect that I would have to pay,” Vargas said. “I thought it would be free. I thought there were people in the court to help people. But there isn’t.”
He’s had to pay for an interpreter a half dozen times so far. And it isn’t cheap.
“The cost is $80, for two or three minutes,” Vargas said.
It’s actually $80 an hour, but Vargas has to pay the whole hour for just a short time in court. It is a strain on his truck driver salary, and it raises the question:
Whose obligation is it to pay for that interpreter?
Most courts strive to offer everyone in criminal court an interpreter. But access to free interpreters in civil court proceedings — like family court, or small claims court — is uneven across Nevada and several other states.
In Clark County, court Public Information Officer Mary Ann Price said low-income people who get their court fees waived also qualify for free interpreters. So do people facing foreclosure, eviction or at the discretion of a judge.
Price said that information is available at the court self-help centers. But beyond that, it isn't widely publicized. In fact, some local court websites even warn non-English speakers appearing for a civil case to bring an interpreter with them, since “otherwise you may not be able to present your information to the Judge.”
Attorney Heather Anderson-Fintak of Nevada Legal Services is worried about the reality of that situation.
“If you don’t have the financial means you are not going to have interpretation services,” she said. “Otherwise you need to bring a family member and hope that their skills are such that they can accurately and quickly interpret between the two languages.”
Some advocates say making people in court pay for their own interpreters, or asking them to rely on unqualified family members, may violate federal law.
“Under the Civil Rights Act, courts that receive any federal funding, or are part of a court system that receives any federal funding, are required to provide language access,” said Laura Abel of the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School. “Courts have to provide interpreters when people are indigent, but also when people are not indigent. And courts also have to make that clear.”
The U.S. Department of Justice seems to agree with that interpretation of the law. The agency has made language access a priority.
In 2010 the Civil Rights Division sent out a letter to chief justices in all 50 states, warning them that if their courts get federal funds -- and most do -- they must provide free interpreters in all court-related matters.
Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas remembers receiving that letter.
“It was a mixed feeling, part of it being sympathetic and understanding to make people first class citizens they needed to have a first class day in court.”
And on the other hand?
“But the reality was: ‘Oh crap, this is another lay-on, when we don't even have the resources to do it, without this.’ ” Douglas said. “So once you got over the shock, then the question is: 'How do we do it?' And that is where we are at right now.”
Douglas has questions about whether the Department of Justice interpretation goes too far — for example, do depositions and mediations require interpreter services? Must the courts pay for interpreters even for wealthy litigants?
He has reason to worry about the details of this mandate -- Nevada’s court system has been slammed by budget cuts, resulting in widespread layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs.
And taking on the cost of providing all foreign language interpreters in all court-related matters across the state would be a significant expense. It is particularly costly in rural courts, where interpreters must fly or drive in.
“I wish I could give you an accurate time and say, 'OK, we could do it in 90 days,'” Douglas said. “But just to be blunt, I would be lying. Because I am not going to make a statement that we could do it when we are trying to work it out. So we cross our fingers every day that we are able to assist those people who have need and that they are patient with us.”
But the Department of Justice may not be patient with state courts they consider to be out of compliance.
Most recently the agency issued a warning letter to North Carolina courts that their interpreter services aren’t adequate.
The agency is actively monitoring or investigating at least six other states. As far as Nevada court officials know, Nevada is not one of those states.