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Language Access in the Federal Courts

Laura Abel

Abstract: "The nation’s federal courts once led the way in providing access for people with limited English proficiency (LEP) in English. However, they have not kept pace as federal agencies and state courts have expanded language access far beyond what the federal courts provide, establishing new language access norms embodied in recent American Bar Association standards. Most federal district and bankruptcy courts do not provide LEP individuals with interpreters in the many civil cases brought by someone other than the federal government. Even in the criminal cases for which the Court Interpreters Act requires interpreters, interpreters may be denied to some people who can neither speak nor understand English adequately to participate meaningfully in the proceedings. There are serious quality issues, too. The federal courts certify interpreters only in Spanish; for languages in which certification is not available, the federal courts’ measures for ensuring interpreter competence are far less rigorous than many state courts. Finally, while some federal courts make some criminal forms available in Spanish, the federal courts do not make civil case instructions or forms available in languages other than English.

As this article explains, these gaps in language access cause due process problems and deprive many LEP individuals of access to the federal courts. The article compares the federal courts’ language access practices to those of federal agencies and state courts. It concludes by recommending steps that the Congress and the federal judiciary can take to improve language access in the federal courts."
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