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Providing Language Access in the Courts: Working Together to Ensure Justice
March 11, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Deeana Jang, Chief of the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section in the Civil Rights Division.

Access to courts and administrative proceedings is critically important.    Whether cases involve child custody, domestic violence, eviction, foreclosure, wage claims or criminal prosecution, the stakes are too high for individuals to be effectively excluded from courtroom participation because of their English proficiency.  Limited English proficient (LEP) individuals should not lose custody of their children because of their English ability.  LEP victims of domestic abuse should not have to rely on family, friends or abusers to interpret in the courtroom, and LEP defendants should not be interpreted by prosecutors.  Regardless of English proficiency, individuals need to understand and have access to judicial proceedings and court operations.  We are all considered equal under the law, and ensuring equal treatment and access in the judicial system are priorities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

There are over 25 million people in the United States who are considered limited English proficient individuals, a population that has almost doubled since 1990.  Our justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and our constitutional right to due process.    Meaningful language access is not just necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our judicial system; it is required by law.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, entities that receive federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of national origin, and failing to provide language access in courts violates Title VI.

Recently, we were delighted to bring together key stakeholders in the justice system to discuss efforts to improve language access in the courts for LEP individuals and to address the work that remains.  At that event, we released our Language Access Planning and Technical Assistance Tool for Courts, designed to help courts prevent Title VI violations and ensure access to justice for all.  This tool allows court systems to self-assess how they are providing language services and how these services can be improved.  It is the product of the experience of our team at FCS and the thoughtful comments by numerous individuals and organizations, representing the bench, bar, advocates and others who reviewed a draft when it was made available for public comment.  We are grateful for their input and hope this tool will be used by court systems for years to come.

Associate Attorney General Tony West and Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels of the Civil Rights Division made clear in their remarks at the event that ensuring access to state courts for LEP individuals is a priority at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.

“While there are myriad challenges we face while trying to provide equal access to justice, we are focusing on one important component here today — the ability of LEP individuals to receive equal access to language services,” said Samuels.  “Our collective commitment to justice is what makes our system work, and all individuals should be able to participate meaningfully, from the time they walk into the courthouse to the time they leave it.”

To ensure that no LEP individual is denied justice due to a court’s failure to provide language services, the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section’s (FCS) Courts Team provides policy guidance and technical assistance to state court systems and undertakes enforcement actions across the country.  Previous blogs have highlighted this work, for example, in Rhode Island and Colorado.  Most recently, the department resolved a complaint with the King County Superior Court in Washington, and the North Carolina Court System has committed to provide full free interpreter coverage for LEP litigants as a result of an FCS investigation.

But we know that we cannot make meaningful language access a reality without the work of other committed stakeholders, including the courts, bar, advocates and access to justice communities.  The event was an illustration of this shared commitment, and featured Vanessa Ruiz, Senior Judge on the DC Court of Appeals; Lisa Wood, Chair, American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants; and Harry Spence, the Court Administrator for the Massachusetts Trial Court.  Panelists discussed the DOJ tool, the American Bar Association 2012 Standards for Language Access in Courts and promising practices in Massachusetts.  We were also pleased to have staff from the National Center for State Courts at this event to share information on their Call to Action.  The National Center on Access to Justice also highlighted their new Justice Index, a tool that provides a snapshot of state rankings in several key access to justice areas.  We were joined by staff from the Access to Justice Initiative who underscored the connection between access to justice and language assistance services in courts and administrative proceedings.

The department has taken similar measures with other recipients of federal funding, such as jails, juvenile justice facilities and law enforcement agencies.  As a result, many recipients have created language access rules and plans.  For instance, the New York Governor’s Office required language access plans, and in Washington, D.C., the Office of Human Rights oversees and enforces the D.C. Language Access Act of 2004.  We have also worked with our partners across the federal government to ensure that all federal agencies are living up to their commitment to provide meaningful access to their services to LEP individuals and their beneficiaries.

A video of the event will be available on the state courts resources page of the LEP website.  The resource list from the event is available here.  Many thanks to Christine Stoneman, Michael Mulé, Andrea Plewes and the rest of the FCS staff, contractors and interns for making this happen.

For further information about FCS’s work, please visit the website and read our Title VI Four Year Report.  For additional LEP-related resources, please go to www.LEP.gov.

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