After years of dialogue with advocates for Spanish-speaking litigants in Monmouth County and a recent visit from U.S. Department of Justice officials, the state judiciary is implementing measures to help those individuals better avail themselves of courthouse services.
In an Oct. 15 letter, acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant said Spanish-language interpreters will be more readily available and additional directional signs in Spanish will be posted around the Freehold building.
Grant said that vicinage officials “are committed to ensuring equal access for all who come to the Monmouth County Courthouse to complete court business, including [limited English proficiency] individuals.”
The Latino Coalition of Freehold began contacting Monmouth County officials in 2009 to request accommodations for Spanish-speaking litigants, the largest segment of vicinage court users that need language assistance.
Director Frank Argote-Freyre says the coalition got involved after hearing that Monmouth court officials routinely directed Spanish-speaking litigants to visit area social service agencies to have court documents and forms translated. That required taking time off from work and sometimes caused delays so long that their cases were dismissed, he says.
One of the group’s earliest inquiries concerned English-only signs in courtrooms indicating that recording devices are operating even when court is not in session. A request for bilingual versions of the signs was met with “a runaround,” Argote-Freyre says.
“We found a culture of resistance there to even minor suggestions or changes,” he says.
Court officials encouraged the coalition to take its concerns to the vicinage’s Minority Concerns Committee, but found that body “very contentious” and “not open to people trying to express this type of concern,” says coalition deputy director Lazaro Cardenas.
The group’s efforts gained traction after it contacted Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the Justice Department in late 2012. Two department attorneys visited the courthouse and met with Administrative Office of the Courts officials on Sept. 24.
In his Oct. 15 letter to the coalition, Grant detailed several improvements that have been put in place:
• Whereas interpreters historically had been provided on an as-needed basis in Special Civil Part, they are now being assigned before, during and after small claims and landlord-tenant calendar calls.
• Courthouse directional maps, signs, LCD displays listing judges’ names and courtroom numbers, and computerized kiosks are in both English and Spanish as of Oct. 11.
• Central Fee Office signage is also being translated into Spanish.
• The vicinage has instructed staff that any person who encounters difficulty completing court business because of a lack of English proficiency should be brought to the trial court administrator’s office for immediate attending.
• Signs are being posted directing non-English speakers who feel they have not been properly served to speak to the trial court administrator or operations manager.
• Computer terminals that allow the public to look up cases will offer instructions in both English and Spanish, and records request forms will be translated.
Grant advised the coalition to contact the Office of the Public Defender with its request for interpreting services for defendants in holding cells.
He also advised that “no smoking” signs will not be translated because they already feature a cigarette in a red circle with a diagonal slash through it.
Grant acknowledged in his letter that Justice Department representatives met with vicinage officials on Sept. 24 for “a very positive and productive discussion in which the New Jersey Judiciary demonstrated its commitment to continue to be a national leader in providing interpreting assistance to all litigants, including LEP individuals.”
AOC spokeswoman Tammy Kendig says the federal officials imposed no mandates on the local courts.
She also disputes the coalition’s characterization of Monmouth officials as resistant to its concerns, saying their “ongoing dialogue” has resulted in “lots of improvements over the years.”
The changes made to signage and literature have a negligible cost that is not being tracked, and increasing availability of interpreters in Special Civil Part will cost nothing because the interpreters are already on duty and are simply being reassigned, Kendig adds.
Argote-Freyre says the coalition will continue to monitor the courthouse for accommodation to Spanish speakers. One unresolved issue concerns a lack of signage announcing that fire exits are connected to alarms and should not be opened if no emergency exists, which the coalition reported recently.
Grant said he was confident that Monmouth court officials would be able to address and resolve any remaining issues the coalition might have. •