Cultural differences as important as language when serving immigrants in court, lawyers told

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 7:32 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Providing justice to the state’s growing immigrant population requires more than translators, Maine’s legal community was told Thursday at the 2012 Access to Justice symposium.

Cultural competency is just as important, said Judge Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts.

Fisher gave the keynote address at the two-day seminar held in conjunction with the Maine State Bar Association’s annual meeting at the Marriott in South Portland. She is a national leader on access-to-justice issues.

“We do a great job of hiding the ball in the game of justice,” Fisher said.

While Maine still is predominantly populated by white, native-born Americans, its immigrant population grew rapidly from 2000 to 2009, according to information from the website www.migrationinformation.org. During that time period, the number of foreign-born people living in Maine grew by 19.8 percent. Between 1990 and 2000, it grew by 1.1 percent.

In 2009, there were nearly 44,000 immigrants living in Maine. The majority, 54.8 percent, were from Canada and Europe, 22.6 percent were from Asia, 15.3 percent were from Africa, 8.1 percent were from Latin America and 1.1 percent were from Oceania.

Immigrants from Somalia, Iraq and Sudan, who primarily live in Lewiston and Portland, have had an impact on the courts there, Susan Roche, legal director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said Wednesday at the opening session of the symposium.

“Cultural issues come up most often in issues involving marriage, divorce and adoption,” she said.

What is considered normal behavior in another culture, such as hitting a spouse, is domestic violence in Maine, she said. Taking in an orphaned relative’s child does not involve a legal adoption.

Donald Kerwin, a Portland lawyer, said that a man from Sudan came to his office to divorce his wife because she had left him. The man wanted Kerwin to draw up legal papers turning the house the couple owned together over to him and custody of their children to him.

“When I tried to tell him how the law worked, he got frustrated and left,” Kerwin said during a session Thursday morning. “He came back the next day with an anthropology textbook from the 1950s that showed, in black and white, the customs of his tribe, which said when a woman left her husband, she just left and he got everything.

“So I got down the Maine statute book and showed him what the law was in Maine,” the attorney said. “He shook his head, left my office and I never saw him again.”

Rosemarie DeAngelis of South Portland teaches English to immigrants at Southern Maine Community College. DeAngelis said Wednesday that she often goes to meetings with lawyers with her former students.

“Many speak English well but they aren’t familiar with the legal language used by attorneys and in court,” she said. “Another problem is the fast pace at which Americans talk. So I often will stop the conversation, turn to the immigrant and ‘translate’ for them and ask questions to make sure they understand.”

One of the consistently confusing legal concepts for people whose first language is not English, she said, is the “no contact” provision in protection from abuse and protection from harassment orders.

“They think it means not touching,” DeAngelis said. “They don’t understand it means they have to move out and not talk to their wife or husband or relative.”

Jim Burke of the Cumberland County Legal Aid Clinic in Portland, which is associated with the University of Maine School of Law, said Wednesday that even the choice of interpreters is important in dealing with some immigrant populations. Interpreters should not be related to the parties involved, he said, and even the social status of those involved should be taken into consideration.

“We had an interpreter who was from the owner class and a witness from the slave class of the same tribe,” he said. “It was a real problem.”

Another problem is the concept of truth in the American legal system, according to Burke.

“In Islam, only Allah can speak ‘the truth,’” he said Wednesday. “We aren’t asking questions at a level where they can articulate answers in words we are used to.”

Judge Fisher, who heads a court system that serves a very diverse population, on Thursday urged Maine’s judges and lawyers to reach out to immigrant communities and offer basic legal seminars inside and outside courthouses. She also suggested that cultural competency be encouraged in the legal system.

“We filmed judges in the courtroom, then had them watch themselves,” she said. “One male judge referred to all females who came before him as ‘Madam.’ He thought he was being polite. Some women thought he was calling them prostitutes.”

She also urged the court system to work with social service agencies because many people who come to court have an array of other problems.

“My logo is a rolled-up sleeve and an outstretched hand,” Fisher said. “We must make sure we in the justice system are giving a helping hand.”

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