Working with State Courts to Remove Language Barriers to Justice

June 15, 2012

The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division.

Access to state courts is critically important. Whether it be in child custody, criminal, foreclosure, domestic violence or in the many other ways that state courts help resolve disputes, they help to protect individuals and secure justice.  For this reason, the Justice Department has prioritized the enforcement of civil rights obligations that require state courts to be fully accessible to everyone, no matter their national origin or language ability.

 This week, the Rhode Island Supreme Court took an important step toward full and equal access in its state courts by issuing an Executive Order that ensures limited English proficient (LEP) individuals seeking services throughout the state court system will have access to timely and competent language assistance services.  This critical step was taken in response to the Justice Department’s investigation of the Rhode Island Judiciary’s language access practices, in response to complaints of alleged national origin discrimination prohibited by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Rhode Island Judiciary and the department worked together for over a year to reach an agreement on the key provisions of the Executive Order, which provides free and competent interpreter services in all criminal and civil proceedings, as well as court operations.

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said the Executive Order will help to expand accessibility and access:

"Effective communication is fundamental to our justice system.  This Executive Order demonstrates a commitment to ensure that justice is not denied because of language barriers.  I thank Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and his staff for working cooperatively with the Department of Justice to create this Executive Order, and for their commitment to continue working together to implement its provisions and bring down barriers to justice.”

The department intends to continue working with the Rhode Island Judiciary to develop a language access plan to manage implementation of the Executive Order.  To ensure public participation and transparency, the order involves court staff and external stakeholders in the planning and implementation process, requires detailed monitoring reports to be posted on the Rhode Island Judiciary website, and creates a language access complaint procedure.

The Rhode Island Executive Order is only the most recent development in the Civil Rights Division’s ongoing, nationwide effort to ensure that LEP individuals are provided meaningful access to state court proceedings and operations.  DOJ recently sent a letter of findings to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, concluding that its court policies and practices discriminate on the basis of national origin.  And in June 2011, the department reached an agreement with the Colorado Judicial Department to ensure that LEP individuals will have access to timely and competent language assistance services. As a result of negotiations in that case, the Colorado Chief Justice issued an Executive Directive and the Judicial Department issued a Language Access Plan.

In August 2010, Assistant Attorney General Perez issued a letter to all chief justices and administrators of state courts clarifying the obligation of courts that receive federal financial assistance to provide oral interpretation, written translation and other language assistance services to people who are LEP in all proceedings and court operations.  The Civil Rights Division’s Federal Coordination and Compliance Section investigated this matter as part of its Courts Language Access Initiative.

For more information about Title VI and the Safe Streets Act, or to obtain copies of the Assistant Attorney General’s letter, please visit www.lep.gov.