Court of many tongues

Rather than Tower of Babel, interpreters bring justice

Pro Bono

Meg Benson

Meg Benson has worked for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the oldest pro bono organization in the country, for more than 30 years. As executive director, she coordinates the agency’s bench, bar and law firm relations and directs its program management and funding. A family law litigator, she still handles minor guardianship and custody cases.

February 2016

Swami is a refugee from Bhutan who has asylum in the United States. He lives in Chicago with his wife, parents and three siblings and supports them by working as a housekeeper in a Loop hotel. Fluent in Nepalese, he struggles with English.

He hit a parked car while driving to work one day. It was his fault, so he filed a claim with his insurance company. The insurer denied it and filed a declaratory judgment action to have the policy declared null and void.

The company claimed that Swami lied on his application by misrepresenting the number of people living with him. It turns out that Swami didn’t lie, his insurance agent did. The agent, who only spoke English, completed the form without bothering to ask his client any of the questions.

Declaratory judgment litigation is tough, even if you are an attorney fluent in English. Imagine the difficulty for a pro se litigant who does not speak our language well and is not familiar with our court system. Immigrants are preyed upon by dishonorable people who take their money in exchange for an inferior product. They count on the fact that their victims won’t have access to the court system.

Swami knew he shouldn’t fight his insurance company by himself and managed to find a pro bono attorney to represent him. The attorney arranged with the court to get a Nepalese interpreter for a hearing on her motion to dismiss the declaratory judgment action.

The Cook County Circuit Court has an Office of Interpreter Services that will send an interpreter to a courtroom when requested by court staff. Judges can appoint these interpreters for all civil and criminal matters. While the most frequent requests are for Spanish, Polish, Russian, Korean and American Sign Language, the court can provide assistance for more than 60 different languages, including multiple African tribal and Asian tongues.

Thanks to the interpreter and his attorney’s skill and advocacy, Swami was able to fully communicate what happened. The court found that Swami’s policy was valid and ordered the insurance company to reimburse him for damages.

Pro bono programs treasure bilingual volunteers. Although attorneys fluent in Spanish and Polish are particularly in demand, fluency in any foreign language is helpful. However, you monolingual, wannabe volunteers, don’t despair. We want you too, especially if you are patient and adventurous enough to take on an immigrant client with the help of an interpreter.

Swami was lucky because a pro bono attorney was willing to represent him although she did not speak Nepalese and his English was poor. Their case preparation was slow and labor-intensive. The hearing was lengthy as every statement had to be translated from English into Nepalese and back again.

Kate Shank, director of volunteer services at LAF, acknowledges the difficulty in finding pro bono attorneys willing to work with non-English-speaking clients. “Cases that require an interpreter can be a challenge to place. Using an interpreter makes it harder to communicate with a client and the case can last longer. This limits the number of volunteers available to take them.”

LAF tries to place non-English-speaking clients with volunteers who can communicate with them in their preferred language. If that’s not possible, they will try to find resources to pay for an interpreter.

Chicago Volunteer Legal Services has an extensive volunteer network with clinics in community organizations or affiliated with ethnic bar associations and can usually find a volunteer fluent in a client’s language. In addition, many of the clinics have volunteer interpreters available for interviews, meetings and court.

The presence of an interpreter during attorney-client interviews and conferences will not destroy privilege as long as it is necessary for complete and accurate communication. The interpreter serves as the client’s agent which keeps the communications privileged.

Some programs allow clients to bring family members or friends to interpret. Although they can also qualify as agents necessary for communication, they may bring other problems. Some clients are uncomfortable revealing private information that they don’t want a friend or relative to know and may not be as open and forthcoming. In addition, these non-professional interpreters don’t always translate objectively or accurately. As a result, they should be used as a last resort.

Not all pro bono attorneys are comfortable representing clients who speak no or little English. And that’s OK. Programs have plenty of English-speaking clients who need your help.

However, if you have the patience to struggle through interviews, meetings and court in simple, sometimes broken English or with an interpreter, your patience will be rewarded. Win or lose, you will have a grateful client who considers you a friend and a member of the family. When Swami’s case was over, he invited his pro bono attorney to be the guest of honor at a Nepalese family celebration.

Meg Benson has worked for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the oldest pro bono organization in the country, for more than 30 years. As executive director, she coordinates the agency’s bench, bar and law firm relations and directs its program management and funding. A family law litigator, she still handles minor guardianship and custody cases.