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08/25/2015 - Court Interpreters File Complaint with DOJ

Mass. court interpreters file complaint with Dept. of Justice

By Todd Feathers,

Updated:   08/25/2015 07:01:41 PM EDT0 Comments

An association representing many of the commonwealths court interpreters has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that the Massachusetts Trial Court is violating the civil rights of citizens who are not fluent in English by failing to provide adequate interpreting services in Bay State courtrooms. 

The Massachusetts Association of Court Interpreters says that since January 2014 the state has reduced the number of per-diem interpreters it supplies to district and superior courts, avoided assigning available interpreters to cases, and reinterpreted the standards by which it reimburses interpreters, all in order to cut costs. As a result, interpreters say, court cases involving non-native English speakers have frequently been delayed or continued, sometimes for days or weeks, while the involved parties lives hang in limbo. 

"This is a very necessary and constitutionally-mandated operation and people who only care about fiscal issues simply see it as an expense they need to lower," said Michael OLaughlin, a Spanish interpreter and spokesman for MACI. "And after all, who would suffer in the end? Just a bunch of immigrants, who generally have much less political clout anyway." 

The Trial Court responded in a statement that it is not aware of any cases subject to "days of delay" due to interpreter assignments.

"(Office of Court Interpreter Services) prioritizes the cases according to the Standards recommendations and the estimated time for each request," the statement said. "OCIS considers the skill level of the interpreter along with the location of the various courts when making these assignments ... OCIS has greatly expanded its interpreter capacity for court hearings and ancillary services." 

Interpreters interviewed for this article contend that OCIS has also changed the way it assigns interpreters to cases and now relies on a reduced number of interpreters who must travel to more courts and handle a larger case load, while other interpreters who may already be in the city where a resident needs assistance are left unused in order to keep them off the clock. 

"There are more continuances, there is less access to interpreters, and the crying shame is that these (interpreters) are sitting at home because the court doesnt want to send them out," OLaughlin said. 

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any agency that receives federal funds, as the Trial Court does, from discriminating against persons based on their country of origin. The DOJ has ruled that courts must therefore provide language services proportional to the population of non-native English speakers under their jurisdiction. 

"The courts do try, but I think ultimately its a matter of money," said Robert W. Harnais, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. "Historically theres been an issue with interpreters showing up to court because we havent had enough interpreters." 

"That should never happen," Harnais said, adding that he could not comment specifically about MACIs allegations. "An individual appearing before any court in need of an interpreter should not go, should not be allowed to go, in front of a court without an interpreter." 

The states top judges and administrators consistently complain that the judiciarys budget has grown at a far slower pace than other departments while its workforce has been cut drastically more. As far back as 2002, Trial Court officials have warned that their waning budget could result in drastic cuts to interpreting services. 

"There was always pressure to cut costs from the Trial Courts," said Gaye Gentes, who ran the Office of Court Interpreter Services from 2001 until last August. "At some point there were no costs to cut unless you started to cut quality." 

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of Massachusetts residents who did not speak English "very well" rose marginally from 8.5% to 8.8% of the states population, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the number of times a court interpreter assisted with a case dropped from 94,000 in 2009 to 84,000 in 2013, with variations in between. 

And MACI members said the decline in services has been exacerbated under new management. 

In 2012, the Trial Court was in the midst of a hiring freeze that saw a nearly 20 percent reduction in staff. Inefficiencies and waste had been exposed as a patronage scandal rocked the Probation Department, and the Legislature that year cut the Trial Courts budget to below its 2010 and 2009 levels. 

In response, the judiciary hired Lewis H. "Harry" Spence, a pedigreed manager with a reputation for turning around troubled organizations, to fill the newly created post of civil administrator. 

Spence had successfully taken over an indebted Boston Housing Authority in the 1980s, and the city of Chelsea after it declared bankruptcy. More recently, he oversaw the New York City Schools budget and the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. 

In September 2013, he was joined by Maria Fournier, a former juvenile court administrator, who took over as director of court support services. 

The administration under Spence has been hailed by judges and lawyers for streamlining the Trial Courts. But by January 2014, it had drawn the ire of per-diem court interpreters. 

Several interpreters interviewed for this article referred to Spence and Fournier as "hatchet men" who unilaterally decided to reinterpret their payment contract without any notice and reduce services across the board. 

"About a year ago, (court interpreters) started saying that the invoices were being cut and they didnt know why," said Nicole Brunelle, a Worcester-based Spanish interpreter and member of MACI. 

"All of a sudden we werent getting the resources we used to get, they werent scheduling the interpreters we needed," she added. 

In June 2014, more than 70 court interpreters secured a meeting with Fournier and another administrator at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover. The meeting quickly devolved into chaos, as interpreters, shouting five at a time, struggled to express their frustration, OLaughlin said. 

Chief among the complaints were changes to the payment and assignment systems. 

There are about 23 court interpreters employed as staff of the Trial Court and 180 who are paid as per-diem contractors. 

Under a code of standards that has been in place since 1988, the per-diem interpreters have been paid on a half-day, full-day model. An interpreter working a half-day is required to set aside four hours from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. during which they will be available only for court-related interpreting.


Interpreters specializing in more commonly spoken languages, like Spanish, tend to handle multiple cases during a half-day or full-day shift, which includes the afternoon hours as well. An interpreter specializing in a less common language, such as Laotian or Armenian, may only have one case scheduled but must be on call for the rest of their shift. 

Regardless of how many cases they actually assist in, the interpreters are paid for either an entire half-day shift or entire full-day shift, because they are not allowed to do any other work during those hours. 

At the meeting in Andover, interpreters said, Fournier announced that her predecessors had misinterpreted the standards, and that going forward interpreters would only be paid for the hours they actually spent assisting with a case. 

In its statement, the Trial Court said that in 2014 it "discovered that per-diem interpreters sometimes received the minimum four hours of payment for minimal provision of services. Since that time, in order to be fully accountable and efficient with public dollars, the Trial Court seeks to utilize the interpreters for the four hours for which interpreters receive payment." 

That utilization, though, has led to interpreters being compensated for only half-days of work because they spent less than four hours actually assisting in cases, even though they spent the entire day traveling across the state and in courtrooms waiting for their case to be called, according to MACI. 

"When you come in nickel and diming people it hurts," Brunelle said, adding, "I see people every day who need me, who are losing their house, who are running from an abusive husband ... and they cant get access to the justice system without us." 

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