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Judges and Judiciary,
Civil Rights,
California Supreme Court

Apr. 23, 2018

Access to justice in any language

We all have a stake in language access in California courts — the legitimacy and viability of the legal system in such a diverse society depend on it.

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With an economy larger than that of Brazil and a population about the size of Australia, New Zealand and Denmark combined, it's no surprise that California faces enormous challenges making access to justice a reality. But in recent years, the state has turned the corner when it comes to providing access to justice for the vast numbers of Californians with limited English proficiency. The success of this effort tells us much about what makes California unique, but also about the challenges our state continues to face at a time of scarce resources and deep divisions across the country.

Every day the cases heard in California courtrooms reflect the breadth of the state: agricultural disputes, technology questions, issues involving the state and federal constitutions, crime and punishment, American Indian law, labor and employment, water, democracy and traffic, to name just a few topics. And the courts serve a massive number of Californians who struggle with English: More than four in 10 families speak a language other an English at home, and there are 210 languages spoken in our state. Nearly 20 percent of our population reports that they speak English less than very well. Every year, we have roughly 1.5 million interpretations in court proceedings.

Language access matters to individual litigants -- cases involving elder abuse, domestic violence and family law all need to be understood by the parties involved. We've seen language access challenges even for members of our own families. Yet irrespective of our own situations or those of our families, we all have a stake in it -- the legitimacy and viability of the legal system in such a diverse society depend on language access.

The Language Access Plan Implementation Task Force, formed in March 2015, has been working to address these needs. We focus on needs within courtrooms, such as access to interpreters. We're also concerned about what happens beyond the courtroom, where signs, translated documents and in-language assistance at the counter make a difference. With the help of our individual courts and other stakeholders across the state, we're working to ensure fair and equal access to the courts for all individuals, regardless of what languages they may speak. Our upcoming outreach session in Sacramento -- the fourth we've had across the state over the last three years -- is about how to live up to this challenge.

In the past, our court system sometimes let serious access to justice needs for LEP (Limited English Proficiency) court users go unmet. Just last year, one man had to bring his landlord to court to interpret for him because an interpreter was not provided to him by the court. He missed significant parts of the proceedings because his interpreter wasn't qualified for the job. We must do better.

With help from the Legislature, the governor and trial court leaders across the state, we're making interpreters available in civil proceedings. As of Dec. 31, 2016, more than 80 percent of courts now provide interpreters for critical civil cases, including domestic violence, unlawful detainer and termination of parental rights cases. This means we can avoid the heartbreaking scenario of a child struggling to interpret for her parents in family court as they contend over her future. It means we can help people understand what's really going on in their civil cases even if they can't afford an interpreter. And we're working to complete the same expansion in small claims actions as well.

Across the state, judges and trial courts have also come to realize what's possible with the right mix of dedication and pragmatism. As courthouses have consolidated in some counties, a small silver lining is that we've learned to make better use of certified interpreters -- concentrated in fewer locations -- to cover more proceedings. We're working on translating forms into more languages, so Californians with limited-English skills can more easily deal with a potential domestic violence or elder abuse problem. Multilingual videos available on mobile platforms are helping us teach people beyond the courthouse about housing-related rights or juvenile delinquency proceedings.

We're also implementing rules to let the public complain in the event of language access problems with a new model complaint form and procedures, which includes problems with interpreters. To facilitate this, we've designated Language Access Representatives in each superior court to aid in communication with the public and manage complaints appropriately.

We're piloting video remote interpreting in multiple locations. Currently, we're testing the system in three courts -- Merced, Sacramento and Ventura. Video remote interpreting has the potential to reach more people in more places, filling in critical gaps with needed interpreters, especially for languages that are spoken less widely across the state. We'll use this pilot to determine if appropriate use of video remote interpreting will increase court users' access to qualified, certified and registered interpreters.

And we're creating more resources for use in and out of the courtroom and for better training. We've built a statewide toolkit of signs, resources, and ideas for courts to share all over the state, including a guide for judges on how to work with interpreters. We worked with the National Center for State Courts to develop curriculum for bilingual staff and court interpreters working in civil cases.

We're tracking all of this with surveys to courts, gathering data on civil expansion and tracking language access needs for better monitoring. Getting it right can make a difference to massive numbers, in very practical ways. It's the difference between access to justice and paper rights that don't live up to their promises. It's also a way of showing what's possible if we innovate, use technology smartly, and take the needs of all stakeholders seriously. If California can bridge these divides at our scale, and with this many languages, no jurisdiction has a sensible excuse for failure.

Some may think language access is a luxury the courts can ill-afford in a time of lean budgets -- or as one person once told me, a giveaway to people who don't deserve help from the courts. It's not so simple. That courts are available to resolve disputes for everyone -- irrespective of whether their desire to learn English has been fulfilled, what language they speak at home, or the money they have to pay for an interpreter -- is a source of legitimacy for our system of government, and that's truly what we can ill-afford to ignore. If testimony from a crucial witness in a criminal case depends on bridging a language divide, we would never think of dispensing with that testimony just because the witness happens to struggle with English. Making language access work well in our courts is especially meaningful nationally and globally at a time when many societies -- including our own -- are rife with societal conflict and divisions. In California's own struggle to address its enormous diversity at scale, we find not only a worthwhile cause to channel our state's trademark audacity, but a means of showing the world how we can actually get closer to true access to justice by finding a way to ensure that every voice counts.

Important as it is to learn from our progress these last few years, it's just as critical to admit that we're not done. We need to ensure that people don't get ordered, despite the best intentions, to complete parenting or substance abuse awareness classes in a language they can't follow. We must ensure resettled refugees and others who add to our rich heritage of linguistic diversity know their language skills can open doors to careers as certified interpreters. And we face many practical challenges as well, including constrained funding for the roughly $100 million annual fund that reimburses trial courts for the use of interpreters, and addressing the number and distribution of languages spoken. With the expansion of interpreters into civil cases, and eventually into other areas as well, the need for both new interpreters and funding has grown.

The more California can show the country and the world that it's possible to deliver justice equally even when millions are limited English speakers, the more we will help build a world bridging the divide between culture and language, where people find common ground and institutions are legitimate because they can hear every voice, in any language.


Ben Armistead

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