Issue: Limited English Proficiency
State courts receiving federal funds are required to take reasonable steps to assist parties and witnesses who are not proficient in English.
No formal position
Summary: Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), government, private, and non-profit entities that receive federal funding must comply with Title VI and the Title VI implementing regulations, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance. In order to comply with the Title VI prohibition against national origin discrimination, recipients of federal financial assistance must take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to their programs.
On 8/11/00, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166, Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency, which directed the federal agencies to publish guidance on how their recipients can provide access to limited English proficient (LEP) persons.
On 6/18/02, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued final guidance to federal fund recipients regarding the requirement under Title VI and the Title VI regulations to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to LEP individuals. (See 67 Fed. Reg. 41,455.) A LEP individual is one who does not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.
With regard to courts, the DOJ guidance states that "every effort should be taken to ensure competent interpretation for LEP individuals during all hearings, trials and motions." The guidance emphasizes the need for courts to provide language services free of charge: "[w]hen oral language services are necessary, recipients should generally offer competent interpreter services free of cost to the LEP person. As such, a court system that receives federal financial assistance should not permit assessment of interpreter costs to a litigant if a party or the party's witness is LEP. These principles apply to civil as well as criminal proceedings, regardless of state laws to the contrary.
The DOJ Civil Rights Division has signaled their intent to ramp up enforcement of all Title VI requirements, including LEP. DOJ conducts administrative investigations and provides technical assistance regarding the provision of meaningful access. A letter to State Court Administrators is in clearance and expected to be released in the coming months.