top of page

News Releases

08/27/2015 - Lowell Sun Front Page Ariticle about Us -- Mass. courts fail immigrants

Breaking News

Interpreters: Mass. courts fail immigrants (link:

Translaters: Mass. courts fail immigrants

By Todd Feathers,

Updated:   08/26/2015 08:25:48 AM EDT1 Comment

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 translating 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 translaters 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 translater 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 translaters 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 percent to 8.8 percent of the states population, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the number of times a court translater 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. 

New manager hired 

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 suppor

bottom of page