Language access for public defense clients

Today the Department of Justice announced that it has issued a letter to chief justices and administrators of state courts regarding their obligation to provide oral interpretation, written translation and other language services.

According to DOJ, "[t]he letter explains that applicable civil rights laws require courts receiving federal financial assistance to provide meaningful access to all civil, criminal or administrative hearings, at no charge to LEP [limited English proficiency] individuals.  It further explains that such access should be extended to LEP parties and other LEP individuals whose presence or participation is appropriate to the court proceedings; should be provided in court programs or activities outside of the courtroom; and should include language services for communication between LEP individuals and court appointed or court managed service providers."

The DOJ letter highlights specific examples of particular concern where state court systems may not be fulfilling the requirements of the law in providing necessary language access for court proceedings and court operations.  Among these are:

Some courts only provide competent interpreter assistance in limited categories of cases.  The letter advises that "every effort should be taken to ensure competent interpretation for LEP individuals during all hearings, trials, and motions, including administrative court proceedings."

Some courts are charging one or more of the parties for the cost of an interpreter.  The letter advises "DOJ expects that, when meaningful access requires interpretation, courts will provide interpreters at no cost to the persons involved."

Some courts only provide assistance during courtroom proceedings.  The letter advises that "DOJ expects courts to provide meaningful access for LEP persons to such court operated or managed points of public contact in the judicial process, whether the contact at issue occurs inside or outside the courtroom."

Some courts fail to ensure effective communication with court-appointed or supervised personnel, including public defenders.  The letter advises:  "Criminal defense counsel, child advocates or guardians ad litem, court psychologists . . . and other such individuals who are employed, paid, or supervised by the courts, and who are required to communicate with LEP parties or other individuals as part of their case-related functions, must possess demonstrated bilingual skills or have support from professional interpreters.  In order for a court to provide meaningful access to LEP persons, it must ensure language access in all such operations and encounters with professionals."

The DOJ summarized the duty of state courts, saying "[l]anguage services expenses should be treated as a basic and essential operating expense, not as an ancillary cost.  . . .  Budgeting adequate funds to ensure language access is fundamental to the business of the courts."

Public defense systems should arm themselves with this DOJ letter when seeking interpreter and translation resources to carry out the right to counsel.



Author/Organization: Phyllis E. Mann
Publication Date: 08/17/2010