Making Justice Real

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

Language Access in the Courts

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

On August 11, 2000, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring that all agencies who receive federal funds become accessible to persons who have limited or no English.   As a result of federal grants and other funding, virtually every courthouse in the nation is covered by this requirement.  Sadly, implementation has been spotty at best.   A study completed last year by Laura Abel of the Brennan Center found that in the 35 state court systems researched:

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.

In response to the continued need for state courts to improve language accessibility, on August 17, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez wrote to the state chief judges.  In his letter he recognized the complexity of the issue and the pressures created by the recession on court budgets, but concluded:

Language services expenses should be treated as a basic and essential operating expense, not as an ancillary cost… Budgeting adequate funds to ensure language access is fundamental to the business of the courts.

We recognize that most state and local courts are struggling with unusual budgetary constraints that have slowed the pace of progress in this area… Fiscal pressures, however, do not provide an exemption from civil rights requirements.

The judicial process means nothing if a participant cannot obtain information about a case or the process, understand the proceedings or make herself heard.   From the door of the courthouse to the issuance of a final order, language barriers for limited English speakers can be insurmountable.   While essential, it is not enough to have an interpreter in the courtroom.  A litigant cannot get a fair result if she or he cannot file a complaint or understand the summons that came in the mail.   Thing as simple as the security screen at the front door, the information desk or directional signs are barriers if they are not accessible.

The good news is that there is progress in the District of Columbia.   Last year, Superior Court Chief Judge Satterfield issued an Administrative Order improving access to interpreters and he has agreed to work with the D.C. Access to Justice Commission to extend language access to Court operations beyond the courtroom.   In addition, Mary Walker, Chief Judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings, the District’s administrative court, has agreed that her agency is covered by the Language Access Act and has taken important steps to implement its terms.  While there is a long way to go for these Courts to be fully accessible, these are important developments and we are grateful to the Chief Judges for their actions.

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