National Center for Access to Justice

ABA Puts the ALL in Equal Justice for All

Last week, the American Bar Association adopted a pathbreaking set of Standards for Language Access in Courts.  The Standards respond to a serious problem:  many court systems have little or no way to communicate with the growing number of Americans who have only limited proficiency in English.  As a result of communication gone awry, innocent people have been sent to prison, children have been sent to foster care unnecessarily, and women have found it impossible to get court orders to protect them from domestic violence.

The Standards promise to change this.  Standard 1 proclaims:

“As a fundamental principle of law, fairness, and access to justice, and to promote the integrity and accuracy of judicial proceedings, 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 nine other standards contain rigorous, specific criteria for language access services provided by the state courts.  The commentary and best practices are also worth reading — they are the most comprehensive piece ever written about best practices in language access in the courts. 

The Standards will be bolstered by the critical work that is already happening around the country.  Many courts are already developing innovative methods of delivering language access, despite scarce resources.  Thanks to the Consortium for Language Access in Courts, state court systems can obtain rigorously developed court interpreter tests.  Courts also have access to guidelines and best practices materials from the National Center for State Courts, National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and Department of Justice.

The state courts face severe budget constraints.  Ideally, the Standards will be a bulwark against legislatures targeting court interpreter programs for cuts.  But the budget problems mean that it is essential to develop best practices to provide language access at low cost.  National groups, including the ABA, Justice Department, National Center for State Courts, Conference of State Court Administrators, and National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, are well situated to help guide the development of best practices.  Here are some places to start:

1)         Multi-state and multi-agency interpreter pools:  By relying on interpreters certified by other states to interpret in rarely spoken languages, states can provide interpretation services faster and at lower cost.  Courts can also collaborate with local hospitals, schools, and social service agencies to recruit, train, and employ interpreters so that there is a high enough volume of work for people to enter and stay in the profession (although the courts will have to ensure that the interpreters are trained in and screened for court interpreting ability).  This sort of collaboration is particularly important for rarely spoken languages and in rural areas, since otherwise there may not be enough work to enable court interpreters to enter and remain in the profession.

2)         Video interpreting:  Video interpreting allows courts to deploy interpreters quickly to remote areas and in rarely spoken languages.  This can work well, but only when the technology is adequate to enable the interpreter and the people in the courtroom to understand each other.  We need guidelines regarding the minimum quality of audio and video transmission necessary for interpreting court proceedings, and regarding the types of technology that can provide that quality. 

3)         Multilingual form orders:  The National Center for State Courts has recommended best practices for multilingual court forms.  There is a need for a similar document regarding multilingual court orders.  A good starting place would be King County, Washington, which has created form orders that judges can fill out in English, with text written underneath in Spanish and other frequently spoken languages.  These forms ensure that court users can understand the orders issued in their cases.  They can also help allay judges’ concerns about signing orders in languages they otherwise are unable to understand. 

4)         Using advocates on the ground to help monitor:  Civil legal aid attorneys, public defenders, domestic violence advocates and others are in court daily, and they often work with immigrants.  Regular communication with these advocates offers an inexpensive and effective way for courts to learn about the obstacles that speakers of different languages encounter when they try to access court services.  The New York Courts’ Advisory Committee on Court Interpreting is one model.

5)         Reviewing contracts and referral lists for outside agencies:  Courts do not need to bear the cost of providing court-mandated services, court-offered alternative services and programs, and court-appointed professionals, in the languages spoken by court users.  Indeed, organizations that receive federal funding have an independent legal obligation to make their services language accessible.  Courts should review their contracts and referral lists to ensure that they draw on the services of the local organizations able to provide language services.  (originally published Feb. 13, 2012 by Laura Abel)