Arabs Who Speak No Hebrew Must Pay Court Interpreters in Lawsuits

While in criminal cases the court must appoint an interpreter, in civil cases this is up to the presiding judge's discretion, leaving some Arab litigants burdened with expenses

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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Central District Court in 2018.
Central District Court in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

Arab litigants who do not speak Hebrew must pay thousands of shekels out of pocket for Arabic-language interpreters in Israeli courts. An inquiry by Haaretz found that the Courts Administration has a designated budget to fund Arabic interpreters in civil suits, but the decision of whether to do so depends on the goodwill of the presiding judge.

Until 2012, Arabic-speaking litigants were required to pay for an interpreter out of pocket, in accordance with procedures set by the Courts Administration. In June of that year, Jerusalem magistrate’s court judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Zaban decided to charge the Courts Administration for the interpreter’s cost, contrary to procedure. The judge wrote in her ruling that “This procedure is contrary to law,” and the Courts Administration decided to abandon that practice.

However, a letter sent by the forum of district chiefs at the Bar Association to then-courts administrator Michael Spitzer in 2014 revealed that the courts continued to charge Arab litigants for the cost of interpreters. The five district heads wrote that the practice is “illegal, unconstitutional and harms the status of the Arabic language as an official, recognized language in Israel.” In addition, it says, it may discriminate against the Arabic-speaking population. Enforcing the procedure is “a needless burden” and imposes considerable costs on a significant part of the litigant population.

Following this critique, the Courts Administration allocated a budget to fund interpreters. But as mentioned above, an inquiry by Haaretz shows that use of this budget is at the discretion of each judge, and considered separately for each legal proceeding. As a result, there are cases in which judges refuse to fund interpreters for Arab litigants who do not speak Hebrew.

This, for example, is what happened recently to Adnan Abu Nab of Jerusalem. Abu Nab is the mother of Fadi Abu Nab, who died in a work-related accident in which a warehouse ceiling collapsed on him when he was ordered to demolish a wall. Three years after the accident, Adnan and her ex-husband filed a tort claim against the “Gallery on Brenner” company, which operates the events venue where the accident took place, and against the contractor who hired their son. The case was heard by Herzliya magistrate’s court judge Amiad Rath.

In light of the fact that Adnan does not speak Hebrew at a level enabling her to understand and answer questions in court, her counsel appealed to Rath and asked him to summon an interpreter to the evidentiary hearing in the case. In his motion, Rubin noted that Adnan is a divorced mother raising two daughters who earns around minimum wage while working as a cleaner. Rath rejected the motion, ruling that “as no financial disadvantage has been proved on the part of the plaintiff, the interpreter will be the responsibility of the plaintiff and at their expense.”

The plaintiff, who claimed that she cannot afford an interpreter, appeared at the hearing with a colleague who speaks both Hebrew and Arabic. But Rath did not allow the colleague to interpret the hearing, saying that the friend's statement that she feels for the plaintiff who lost her son shows that she cannot be an unbiased translator. The judge insisted that the plaintiffs must summon a certified interpreter at their own expense. Due to this and other complaints regarding the proceedings, the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court president to remove Rath from the case; the decision is still pending.

According to the Courts Administration, the designated budget for funding interpreters in the judiciary for 2022, for all languages, is 6.7 million shekels (over $2 million). Haaretz asked how many requests to fund an interpreter were approved by judges and how many were denied in the past two years; the judicial branch replied that they have no overall figure, as it would require “a case-by-case examination.”

The judiciary further responded that “In criminal proceedings, an Arabic interpreter is appointed pursuant to the provision of the Criminal Procedure Law, and is paid by the Courts Administration. In civil proceedings an Arabic interpreter is appointed subject to the decision and best judgement of the presiding judge.

In these proceedings, the Courts Administration bears the cost of the interpreter’s pay, out of a designated budget allocated for the purpose, and this without a legal duty to do so. Following the verdict by Judge Tamar Bar-Asher, which found that the 2002 procedure by then-courts administrator Dan Arbel is inconsistent with the provisions of the law, the courts have ceased to follow it.”

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