Calls for Comprehensive Review of Language Services in Housing Courts

(New York, NY) – Tenants with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) face a myriad of hurdles in housing courts in all five boroughs, including long waits for interpreters and inadequate multi-lingual signage and literature, according to a review of language access issues in our City’s courts system in all five boroughs by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.

“Justice is hard to find in courthouses that confuse the people they are supposed to serve,” Comptroller Stringer said. “In a City with nearly two million individuals with Limited English Proficiency, it is outrageous that tenants in our housing courts wait hours for interpreters, help desks often can’t provide necessary services, and multi-lingual signage and literature are inadequate. There must be an immediate, comprehensive examination of the barriers to entry for non-English speaking New Yorkers in our housing courts.”

Recently, Comptroller Stringer toured Bronx Housing Court with Community Action for Safe Apartments Bronx to see first-hand the issues confronting litigants. More than 1.8 million New Yorkers are Limited English Proficiency and face significant hurdles in accessing services in the court system. Following the tour, the Comptroller’s office visited housing courts in all five boroughs to assess how each location provides language services.

Today, Comptroller Stringer released a letter calling upon Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti, who oversees the administration and operation of the New York State’s Unified Court System, to address several identified problems, including:

  • Ensuring that proper interpretation services are in place to guide litigants, as outlined in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Advocates informed the Comptroller’s Office that wait times for interpreters can extend for many hours, or force postponements to other days. As a result, litigants are often pressed by landlord attorneys to negotiate outside courtrooms without the benefit of an interpreter in order to avoid spending more time in court;
  • Limited services and resources provided at Help Centers at all courthouses. The information and guidance provided at these desks, and at those run by non-profit organizations, is often the main navigation tool to the courts for many individuals; and
  • Inadequate multi-lingual literature and signage and inconsistent displaying of “We Speak Your Language” posters which direct litigants to services in the courthouse. For example:
  • Brooklyn’s housing court featured poorly marked signs leading to interpreters on the second floor;
    • In Queens, only the “We Speak Your Language” was prominently displayed while other signs were not translated;
    • In Manhattan, the first sign a litigant sees upon entrance is in English only; and
    • In the Bronx, many signs that would be extremely useful for LEP litigants appear in English only, including the Housing Court Directory and directions regarding how to check in with the court clerk.

“The court system has been nickel and dime-ing New Yorkers’ civil rights. It isn’t enough to provide interpretation services inside the courtroom when a family’s housing is on the line. We must design our courthouses, from the front door to the court’s chambers, in a manner that meets the needs of all New Yorkers,” Stringer said.

The Comptroller made several recommendations to improve language access, including:

  • A comprehensive review by the courts system of interpretation services and signage for LEP individuals in New York City courts-both criminal and civil – including potentially allocating additional resources to make interpreters more available both inside and outside courtrooms, using demographic data to tailor signage to the specific needs of particular boroughs, expanding pro se litigant materials to the top six languages spoken in New York City, and ensuring that individuals receive interpretation services in the correct dialect;
  • Expanding the use of Help Centers in every Housing Court facility to assure a more uniform and sustainable standard of service in multiple languages and ensuring that telephonic interpretation services are always available; and
  • Placing “We Speak Your Language” cards at entrances to courthouses in a number of commonly-spoken languages so that individual litigants can have a physical card to guide them.

“There is no time to wait to make common sense changes to improve access to our courts. This is a language rights issue. We must do a better job at ensuring that every New Yorker, no matter what language they speak, has an equal shot at justice,” Stringer said.

To read the full letter, please click here.

“The Comptrollers report raises important questions about language access in Housing Court that should be addressed. This Council has a history legislating language access in city services and we look forward to working with Comptroller to expand language access to Housing Court. Expanding Civil legal services has been a priority for the Council because every New Yorker should have access to justice,” said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“Without right to counsel, the court system must do everything it can to make sure tenants can access justice. Better signage, in the languages that New Yorkers speak, and an info desk to help direct tenants at a time when they are so fearful, would go a long way to making the courts be a place for tenants to access justice,” said Susanna Blankley, Director of Organizing, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a project of New Settlement

“The Comptroller’s report lays bare the hurdles that New Yorkers with limited English proficiency face when trying to access justice. New York must do better. For far too long litigants who do not speak English have been forced to navigate a legal system they literally can not understand. New York is a global city and our courts must be reflective of the city’s rich diversity,” said Afua Atta-Mensah, Esq. Director of Litigation, Urban Justice Center-Safety Net Project.

“Housing court is a tough place to fend for yourself when you are an unrepresented tenant trying to preserve a roof over your head. Those difficulties are compounded when, in addition, you don’t speak English. Having working translation systems, from enough interpreters to adequate signage, is integral to protecting the rights of monolingual immigrants,”said Luis Henriquez, Supervising Attorney at Make the Road New York.

“Each year, tens of thousands of Brooklyn families fight homelessness in Brooklyn Housing Court, navigating a complex legal system where more than 95% of landlords have lawyers and more than 90% of tenants do not. For families who speak a language other than English, the deck is stacked even higher as the legal right to decent, adequate translation and interpretation is routinely ignored by the court. The Flatbush Tenant Coalition stands with Comptroller Stringer in calling on the New York State Office of Court Administration to improve and expand language access services in Brooklyn Housing Court, including providing adequate multilingual signage and information, and expanding the availability of quality interpreters. We must ensure that every New Yorker has true access to justice, regardless of their financial means or their English proficiency,” said the Flatbush Tenant Coalition.

“The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), joins Comptroller Scott Stringer, and many housing and community advocates calling for an increase in language access and cultural competent translation of vital signage and services. All too often many families in the Asian Pacific American community are not able to access resources because of language barriers. Our hope is that this unified call for increased translation of basic signage and vital services will lead to more understanding and knowledge for ALL New Yorkers about their rights in housing court,” said Sheelah A. Feinberg, Executive Director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.

“The NYIC played a lead role in the passage of New York City and State’s languages access executive orders mandating that all state and city agencies must provide translation and interpretation to help all New Yorkers have access to vital government services. In this vein, it is critical that housing courts provide access to translation for New Yorkers with limited english proficiency. By ensuring that immigrants have language access, the city will protect the rights of individuals to avoid eviction and stay in their homes,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

“It is unacceptable that the court system has failed to ensure language access in situations where New York City residents stand to lose their homes. I thank Comptroller Stringer for his leadership in shining a spotlight on this critical oversight,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.