Q2 Report - Issue Spotlight: Language Services and Obstacles

Inequitable barriers in eviction court for tenants with limited English proficiency (LEP) persisted this quarter. Court translators for Spanish-speaking tenants continued to be an underutilized resource for native Spanish-speakers and the translation services available frequently present challenges to tenants – a major concern for EDDP staff and its partners, a number of whom are native-Spanish speakers themselves.

These barriers create significant challenges for renters in their ability to effectively present a defense in their cases, with significant confusion about the process, difficulties navigating the technology, and a greater risk of default in the proceedings, all increasing the disparities faced by LEP tenants.

While these factors are significant in a tenant’s ability to navigate the court process, it is also important to note that these same factors exist prior to the initiation of an eviction case, with many LEP tenants reporting difficulties understanding their rights after receiving an eviction notice, successfully negotiating a resolution in advance of a filing, and challenges accessing programs that provide support due to language barriers and fears of negative consequences for even accessing such resources in the first place.

In court proceedings, the onus for requesting an interpreter is too often placed on the tenants themselves, most of whom are unfamiliar with the eviction court process. If an interpreter is needed but has not been requested, court commissioners commonly make the parties wait – sometimes up to an hour or more – until a translator is available over the phone. When the translator is patched in, the audio quality is typically muddled, staticky, and quiet, making it difficult for tenants, landlords, attorneys, and TRC staff to have a productive discussion. At times, these challenges have impeded the Tenant Resource Center’s ability to connect with renters in a meaningful way and to request private conversations about rental rights and assistance programs.

It is also important to note that this process forces tenants to have conversations in open court, which is visible to the public through a live broadcast on YouTube. These conversations are typically held in private for English speakers in breakout rooms. This process can be humiliating, intimidating, and cause challenges in effectively negotiating a resolution.

Once an interpreter is available, whether appearing via Zoom or phone, they rarely translate court proceedings in a way that normal native-Spanish speakers can fully understand. The interpreters can be too formal, too professional, and use too much jargon for the average person, according to EDDP staff and partners who are native-Spanish speakers.

EDDP staff, People’s Law Center, and UW’s Eviction Defense Clinic formed a working group this quarter to explore solutions to these barriers and burdens for tenants with LEP. This group will continue to strategize and advocate for a more equitable court process that works for everyone, not just English speakers. Additionally, a top priority for the EDDP program is continuing and expanding its one-on-one services for Spanish speakers.