The two leading court organizations in the country have taken a big step towards opening our courts to people with limited proficiency in English. This week, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators jointly released a resolution endorsing the American Bar Association’s draft Standards for Language Access in Courts. This increases the likelihood that the full ABA will adopt the standards at upcoming mid-year meeting in February 2012.
The proposed standards deal with serious barriers that prevent access to the courts. In many states, the courts provide interpreters only in criminal cases. And, in many states the interpretation provided is unreliable. As a result, people with limited proficiency in English are unable to obtain domestic violence protection orders, fight eviction from their homes, or obtain hard-earned wages from delinquent employers. Relying on “fundamental principle[s] of law, fairness, and access to justice, and . . . the integrity and accuracy of judicial proceedings,” the proposed standards state that “courts should develop and implement an enforceable system of language access services, so that persons needing to access the court are able to do so in a language they understand, and are able to be understood by the court.”
The courts are embracing the proposed standards at a crucial time. State court systems around the country are suffering from unprecedented budget pressures, forcing them to curtail core services. The standards usefully make clear that language access must be considered a core service. They establish that, at the very least, limited English proficient individuals should not suffer disproportionately when court budgets are cut. At the same time, the standards also acknowledge that courts may need to prioritize expansion of language access services to low and moderate income individuals.
If the ABA adopts the standards in February, justice leaders in the states will have a ton of work to implement them. Some of the tasks ahead include: comparing the existing court language system to the ABA’s standards; conducting planning processes to expand language access in compliance with the standards; drafting new court rules and guidelines to implement the standards; and, persuading state legislatures to allocate needed funds. Our court leaders are leading here too, by announcing “a national summit” to be held in October 2012 in Houston, Texas that will “ bring together chief justice-led state teams comprised of representatives from all three branches of government and the state bar to develop state specific strategies for improving access to justice for limited English proficient individuals.”
In an impossible fiscal climate, state court leaders have shown courage and wisdom in tackling language access head on. In a Christmas season dominated by aggressive consumerism, the court leaders’ action reminds us that generosity towards newcomers is the real message of the Christmas story.
(originally posted Dec. 16, 2011 by Laura Abel)