What is required for state courts to provide proper language access?

Federally funded state courts are required to provide language services to all people, regardless of the language they speak or their English proficiency. Failure to provide access can interfere with the capacity of state courts to accurately evaluate the facts and fairly administer justice. Below is a list of six essential steps every state must take to assure language access.

  1. Court Programs and Services
  • Need for multilingual signs at all access points: LEP persons may not be able to read or understand signs and notices necessary to navigate through the courthouse and appear for a proceeding.
  • Communication with court staff: LEP persons may not be able to speak with staff in the clerk’s office or with court-appointed counsel in order to obtain and complete necessary paperwork, participate in mediation, or engage in court-mandated treatment, visitation, or evaluation programs.


  1. Criminal Court Proceedings:
    • Timely interpreting services: Defendants require timely interpretation and translation services to avoid jeopardizing that person’s life, liberty, and property, avoid overturned convictions, and unnecessary waste of funds and resources during incarceration.
    • Timely translation: Due to the fact that written waivers were never translated when signed, the court granted motions to remove a guilty plea in some cases.


  1. Civil Court proceeding: Affecting life and property
    • Spousal abuse: There have been cases when women were unable to explain to the court the extent of spousal abuse due to the language barrier and lack of interpreter.
    • Eviction: Individuals have been unable to defend themselves during eviction proceedings because they did not understand what was going on.
    • Child Custody: Some parents have been unable to explain their case and have even lost custody of their children without even knowing it or the reasons why.


  1. LEP Witnesses, victims and Others:
    • Example: A judge failed to provide an interpreter to a rape victim who could not understand all the questions or fully explain her case. As a result, the alleged attacker was released. Shortly afterward, he was arrested again for sexually assaulting a fifteen-year old girl.


  1. No Cost Language services:
    • LEP persons who must pay for an interpreter in proceedings bear a greater financial burden.
    • Charging for language access services may also discourage LEP individuals from using interpreters, and encourage them to try to struggle through their court appearances without understanding or being able to communicate with the court.


  1. Qualification and Training of Court Interpreters:
    • Training: Individuals who serve as “interpreters” who have not been properly trained, assessed, or certified may not comprehend or accurately convey important information, including difficult legal terminology.
    • Ethics: Interpreters must also follow ethical standards to avoid providing advice, expressing bias, or otherwise engaging in inappropriate side conversations with LEP persons.
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