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Increasing Language Access in the Courts: Advocating At Court

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Decorative Scales of JusticeThe Increasing Language Access in the Courts toolkit examines advocates’ observations about the court experiences of survivors with limited English proficiency, and offers guidance and resources to build systems change efforts for language accessibility.

This toolkit is designed to guide and inform advocates working with survivors with limited English proficiency (LEP) who are involved in civil legal proceedings. Download the toolkit here.

Advocating at Court

If no interpreter is provided,

  • Approach the coordinator of court interpreter services to request an interpreter.
  • Raise the issue of concern to the judge and request that the judge secure an interpreter. There are several strategies to advocate for language access at court:

Emphasize access to justice

The ability to access justice requires that all parties understand and participate to the best of their abilities in court proceedings. Limited English proficiency is recognized as a barrier to justice as are, for example, physical access barriers or the lack of an attorney for indigent criminal defendants. Court systems must recognize and remove these barriers in order to ensure access to justice for all persons. “In order to achieve equal justice for all, every litigant, victim and witness must have a complete understanding of what is happening in the courtroom. However, if language barriers intrude into the process of justice and prevent essential communication and understanding, some of the basic strengths and values of our justice system are negated.”

Describe the need for safety

Survivors must be able to communicate effectively and understand the proceedings in order to ensure that the courts’ efforts support the goal of maintaining safety. Emphasize the real costs (beyond money) of not providing meaningful language access. According to the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, “Often the costs of failure to provide appropriate language access can be even higher than the costs of providing a qualified interpreter, translator, or bilingual staffer. Convictions can be overturned and defendants released for inaccurate interpretation during interrogation, evidence development, or testimony.”

Inform or educate about the federal obligation to provide meaningful language access

Use the Court Fact Sheet to talk through the many pieces of guidance and legislation that reinforce the obligation of courts to provide language access. Use your Court Packet documents to reinforce the arguments that you make to the court. Court personnel may contact the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice (www.lep.gov, 888-848-5306, or 202-307-2678 TDD) for technical assistance in providing meaningful access to persons with LEP to court services and proceedings.

If family or friends are asked to interpret

Avoid turning to survivors’ friends or families for interpretation unless there are no other options and it is an emergency. First, using a survivor’s family or friend jeopardizes confidentiality. Second, friends and family are never neutral to a situation, and they may not interpret a survivor’s intent accurately and completely. Finally, survivors may not feel comfortable speaking frankly in front of someone from their family or community. They may fear judgment or open disagreement, be uncomfortable discussing the specifics of violence or abuse, or not feel safe disclosing their strategies or plans in front of someone who knows their partner.

Children should never interpret for their parents, even for benign information. Asking children to interpret poses safety risks to a survivor and can significantly affect children in ways that are not immediately obvious. First, using children to interpret conversations about violence may cause them to experience or relive trauma. Second, they may not understand or know the legal vocabulary for what they are trying to interpret. Third, as with friends, their investment in outcomes for the family may make children interpret inaccurately or involve them in the outcome in a way that causes even more emotional conflict. Additionally, it creates an imbalance in the parent/child relationship.

If the advocate is asked to interpret

The role of the advocate is different than that of the interpreter. Having a bilingual advocate who speaks a survivor’s native language is one of the most effective ways to conduct advocacy with survivors with LEP. Bilingual advocates can speak directly and in plain language to explain complicated legal terms to survivors, determine if they are safe, inform them of the services available, and assess whether survivors are getting the help they need at the courthouse. Further, bilingual advocates can help survivors fill out protection order affidavits, help with safety planning, and provide advocacy support during hearings and other court visits.

However, bilingual advocates, in most cases, are not trained interpreters, and should not try or be expected to interpret for survivors with LEP who are communicating with court personnel. As with family or friends, advocates who are not trained interpreters usually end up summarizing or paraphrasing meaning, which can be problematic because it inevitably leads to miscommunication between the court and the survivor. In addition, the roles of an advocate and of an interpreter are not only different, but can conflict. An interpreter is supposed to only state exactly what the survivor and other parties say. If the survivor does not understand the question or the answers provided, for example, the interpreter cannot provide an explanation or other support for the survivor. Furthermore, if an advocate is asked to serve as an interpreter, and consequently as the mouthpiece for the court, for adverse witnesses, and possibly even for the perpetrator, this can create confusion for the survivor and undermine the relationship of trust with the advocate. Additionally, the neutrality of the advocate/ interpreter can be called into question by the opposing party which can complicate or undermine the court process.

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