Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Language Access in the Courts

Persons who are Limited English Proficient or speak no English have increased difficulty in accessing the legal system.  Despite a clear obligation that any court or administrative tribunal that receives federal funds be linguistically accessible, many are not.  See, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d.   In recent months, the Department of Justice has intervened in Indiana and Maine to require that interpreter services be available.

There are continuing issues with language access in the District’s Courts and administrative agencies.  The District’s Access to Justice Commission has been working with the Superior Court to improve access to interpreters and, while the process is not complete, the Court has taken important steps.   The remaining necessary changes will require a shift in Court priorities and would be facilitated by additional funding.

The consequences for parties to litigation who cannot get an interpreter are devastating.   Without an interpreter, a non-English speaker cannot understand the proceedings or address even the most minor problem.  

Despite that we still seek additional reforms in the District, the problem is national in scope.   The Brennan Center for Justice studied the practices in 35 states and found :

  1. 46% fail to require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases;
  2. 80% fail to guarantee that the courts will pay for the interpreters they provide, with the result that many people who need interpreters do not in fact receive them; and 
  3. 37% fail to require the use of credentialed interpreters, even when such interpreters are available.

The Brennan Center report is well worth reading and provides important data to support an urgent call to address this critical civil rights issue.

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