Landlord-Tenant Dispute Highlights Need for Language Access

Polish Legal Interpreting Services for Litigation

The Hawai‘i state courts, similarly to the courts in other states, have an on-going need for court interpreters fluent in Chuukese, Marshallese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Samoan, Tongan, Ilocano, Cantonese, Thai, Farsi, Mandarin, Tagalog, Polish, Somali, Tigrinya, Sinhala, French, Mongolian, Gujarati, Somali, Low German Mennonite, Kunama, and other foreign languages.

In a recent case Cambridge Mgmt., Inc. v. Jadan, 149 Haw. 56, 481 P.3d 63 (2021) the Supreme Court of Hawai’i vacated a judgment against a Polish-speaking tenant because the district court failed to adequately assess her need for a Polish court interpreter during landlord-tenant proceedings stemming from an eviction dispute. This case highlights the importance of courts thoroughly examining whether a litigant’s English proficiency enables meaningful participation absent a court-appointed legal interpreter.

Hawai’i Court Rules Requiring Judges to Appoint Interpreters for Meaningful Access

Hawai’i court rules obligate judges to appoint court interpreters for limited English proficient (LEP) litigants to ensure their meaningful access to the courts. The rules require the court to examine a litigant’s English abilities on the record by asking about their English proficiency in various contexts relevant to comprehending court proceedings.

Supreme Court Analysis of Inadequate Language Access

The Supreme Court held that the cursory questioning about Jadan’s length of U.S. residency failed to properly evaluate whether she could understand court proceedings and effectively communicate without a Polish court interpreter. It explained that the ability to speak conversational English does not equate to comprehending the complex language used in legal settings. Thus, courts must specifically assess litigants’ ability to understand legal terminology and concepts.

Supreme Court Decision Vacating Judgment for Inadequate Inquiry

The Court ruled that the district court abused its discretion by not adequately examining Jadan’s English language abilities as required. It vacated the judgment against Jadan, finding the denial of a Polish interpreter was not harmless because the record showed Jadan struggled to be understood in English. On remand, the court must fully evaluate her needs for an English to Polish legal interpreting services.

Key Takeaways on an Access to Court Interpreters

This case underscores that courts must carefully probe a litigant’s specific English abilities to determine if a lack of fluency will impair their meaningful participation. Glancing inquiries about general English proficiency are insufficient. Attorneys should be prepared to show why a court interpreter is necessary to avoid communication breakdowns that could undermine proceedings. Above all, courts must ensure LEP litigants are afforded equal access to justice.
Thorough assessments of the need for a foreign language court interpreter are imperative. This case teaches that courts cannot take language abilities for granted and must fully examine them on the record before denying requests for foreign language interpreters. Doing so is key to upholding every litigant’s right to meaningfully take part in proceedings that affect their rights and liberties.

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