Unavailability of Interpreters


The Commission recently investigated a complaint alleging that certain town and village court proceedings were held and dispositions rendered notwithstanding that certain defendants needed but did not receive the assistance of qualified foreign-language interpreters. We learned that such interpreters were not available when needed in many town and village courts, and some city courts, both because of a shortage of qualified interpreters in certain areas and because individual municipalities did not provide funding for the courts to bring in such interpreters. We learned that in some town and village courts, interpreting was done on an ad hoc basis by spectators or court personnel with varying degrees of familiarity with a particular defendant’s language, with no guarantee that the interpretation was accurate or that the witness or defendant properly understood his/her rights or what was being said and asked. In one situation, we learned that a local prosecutor assigned to cases in a town court occasionally interpreted for Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL) defendants attempting to negotiate pleas on speeding or other VTL charges.

The Commission is reluctant to pursue disciplinary charges against town and village justices who confront such situations and are unable to secure necessary interpreter services through no fault of their own. The Commission is also aware of the inconvenience to both the courts and individual defendants for whom it would be a burden to keep returning to court on adjourned dates to dispose of VTL matters on the possibility that an interpreter might be available. Where there is a shortage of qualified interpreters in a given area and/or no public funds allocated for their services, it is unlikely that interpreters would ever be available on any adjourned date. At the same time, the Commission is concerned about the due process implications of pleas being negotiated or taken with the assistance of unqualified interpreters drawn ad hoc from the ranks of randomly present spectators, court employees or, most problematically, opposing advocates whose neutrality or impartiality would obviously be lacking.

The issues addressed herein are not necessarily confined to city, town and village courts.

The Commission draws the Legislature’s attention to this matter, particularly as it relates to the need for funding. The Commission also recommends that the Office of Court Administration examine the issue and help fashion a solution.

From the 2020 Annual Report, pages 23-24.