Last week, the Justice Department issued a letter to chief justices and state court administrators to help clarify the obligation “to provide oral interpretation, written translation and other language services to people who are limited English proficient (LEP);” all courts that receive federal financial assistance must provide such services.

The letter outlines four concerns for courts to address regarding the services they provide to LEP individuals:
1. Interpreter assistance should not be limited to certain types of proceedings. Rather, qualified interpreter services must be provided at all court proceedings, as all court proceedings are considered critical by the DOJ, whether they be civil, criminal, or administrative. Non-party LEP individuals should also be provided with interpreter services when those persons’ “presence or participation in a court matter is necessary or appropriate.”
2. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin; “applicable civil rights laws require courts . . . to provide meaningful access to all civil, criminal or administrative hearings, at no charge to LEP individuals.” Title VI prohibits court practices that would impair participation in proceedings, such as charging interpreter costs to one or more parties. “Language expenses should be treated as a basic and essential operating expense and not as an ancillary cost. . . . Fiscal pressures . . . do not provide an exemption from civil rights requirements.”
3. Courtrooms are not the only location in which interpreter assistance may be necessary and required; “the meaningful access requirement extends to court functions that are conducted outside the courtroom as well.” All points of public contact, such as records rooms, filing offices, detention facilities, and anger management classes, should have services available for LEP persons.
4. Lastly, those individuals involved in a case under court appointment or order, who are required to communicate with LEP parties, “must possess demonstrated bilingual skills or have support from professional interpreters.” Effective communication with court officers, such as criminal defense counsel, court psychologists, probation officers, doctors, and trustees, is essential to provide meaningful access to justice for LEP persons.

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