The Future of Language Access in the State Courts

In a relatively short period of time, the state courts have made significant progress in the provision of language access services.  As detailed in this report and the survey data, most state courts now have fully developed language access programs, or have implemented key measures to promote the effective administration of language access services to LEP court users.  State courts have developed statewide language access plans that provide: protocols and procedures for court interpreter services; robust credentialing requirements for court interpreters; procedures and policies for monitoring and identifying the need for services; language access at non-courtroom points of contact in the court; translation of critical documents; and training requirements and programs for court staff and judicial officers. 

One of the most critical and fundamental improvements made in state courts was the increased awareness of the need for LEP services in state courts.  Five years ago, the goal of the Summit and the Call to Action was to spark this awareness and help state courts shape the culture within their own justice systems.  Much of this progress can be attributed to these efforts and the collaboration of CCJ, COSCA, NCSC, and SJI, who worked with state courts at the local, state, and national levels to improve language access.  CCJ and COSCA’s bold leadership on this issue ensured that enhancing language access would be a national priority.  In addition, the SJI Board of Directors continued to support language access efforts in the state courts, either through direct funding or development of national tools by organizations such as NCSC. 

To build on this foundational work, local, state, and national efforts over the next five years will continue to incorporate creative strategies that maximize the use of existing resources, utilize technological solutions and collaboration with key stakeholders, and continue to meet the needs of a growing LEP population.

Specifically, many of the ongoing or prospective national trends will focus on the more efficient use of qualified interpreters through technology, increased collaboration among states for information and resource sharing, as well as regional and national efforts to recruit, train, and share interpreters across a wide range of languages.  Below are several illustrations of such activities. 

In 2016, with support from SJI, NCSC released a national database of 1,335 qualified court interpreters in 49 languages to state court language access program managers.  Future initiatives will focus on increasing the overall number of interpreters and breadth of languages included in the database, as well as the identification of those interpreters available to state courts for remote interpreting, either via audio or video platforms.  Such efforts will provide courts with an expanded cadre of qualified interpreters to meet their local needs.  Providing such a national platform will be particularly helpful for rural jurisdictions with limited in-person court interpreting resources.  In addition, this database will provide interpreters in rare languages, which will benefit courts that do not have ready access to these interpreters.

NCSC, in collaboration with COSCA/LAAC and SJI, will also continue the efforts to support Virtual Remote Interpreting (VRI) in the state courts.  The recruitment and training of VRI-ready court interpreters for the national database, as well as the development of guidelines for the use of VRI and an inventory of possible technological solutions, will greatly assist state courts in their local efforts to embrace technological solutions to provide language services.

As state courts continue to look to technological solutions for the provision of interpreters, future trends also include the expanded use of existing technology, secured for video conferencing or specifically for VRI in the courtroom, to support other ancillary events and court activities outside of the courtroom.  Examples of multi-use video technology outside the courtroom include bilingual assistance via video for self-help appointments and workshops, mediation, and other alternative dispute resolution services.  Courts can maximize their investment in technology for VRI or video arraignments through coordinated calendaring efforts that support intra-state or even national use of equipment to expand language services.

State courts will continue expanding the use of technology and online platforms to provide language access training for court interpreters, judicial officers, and court staff, as well as provide information for LEP court users at all points of contact with the courts.  An example of such a training platform is the Language Access Basic Training (LABT) offered by the New Mexico Center for Language Access.[1]  The LABT suite, funded by SJI and developed in collaboration with NCSC and LAAC, is an interactive training that provides introduction to language access for all court employees.  The purpose of the training is to ensure that court employees have a basic understanding of their ethical and legal obligations, as well as current best practices in serving LEP and non-English speaking individuals.  The suite, which is available in Spanish and language neutral (all spoken languages) versions, also provides a training module and an optional skills assessment for bilingual court employees.

To better assist LEP court users in the courthouse, state courts are deploying informational kiosks that provide multilingual information to LEP court users, as well as expanding the use of multilingual online interfaces that assist individuals with accessing resources or requesting an interpreter.  Such efforts can assist state courts in providing fuller access to the growing number of self-represented litigants who need multilingual information and access to court services, but may never need to appear in a courtroom proceeding with a court interpreter.  These tools and resources can also assist courts with the more efficient utilization of in-person interpreters, by freeing them from providing services that can be met through other means and prioritizing their use for courtroom proceedings and other appropriate settings.   

Another emerging trend is increased collaboration efforts among states and justice partners.  While state courts have made significant progress in developing court interpreter programs and policies for the required use of qualified court interpreters, they continue to struggle with recruiting and retaining the number of qualified court interpreters needed to meet the needs of LEP court users.  Securing interpreters in rare languages is a challenge.  By working with other states with similar needs, the state courts can develop more interpreters in languages for which there are scarce resources, even at the national level.  Collaboration among court systems regionally or nationally may include shared court interpreter resources.

Other collaborative trends moving forward include regional or national sharing of translated materials.  While courts often need customization for local forms and procedures, there could be great benefit in national translation efforts that serve to create translated templates of routine court forms into the top ten national languages.  Other national efforts may include the development of a repository of translated common terms needed for signage or for general informational use, such as prohibited items in the courtroom and general courtroom conduct rules.

As state courts continue to face the growing needs of their LEP court users, future trends will also involve more collaboration with local and statewide justice system partners.  Cooperation with law enforcement, and other community resources where LEP persons may first seek assistance, may help address the earlier identification of language services needs, critical to providing courts more time and opportunity to secure qualified interpreters in a timely manner.  Efforts may also include expanded working relationships with other state and county agencies, community organizations, refugee resettlement agencies, and local universities and college programs.  Such collaboration can result in improved access to potential court interpreter and bilingual staff candidates; the sharing of existing interpreters; and the potential development of linguistically-accessible post-court or court-ordered services and programs. 

The future also includes expanded use of bilingual staff in appropriate settings outside of the courtroom.  While the services of court interpreters are essential for events that require participation and understanding by parties, bilingual staff who are proficient in two languages, but do not have interpreting skills at the level of qualified court interpreters, may be considered for appropriate use outside the courtroom, especially in settings where there is a high volume of LEP court users.

In conclusion, the great strides that have been made over the last five years, and these exciting anticipated future trends, will place the state courts on a trajectory to ensuring that litigants with limited English proficiency are heard, and have equal access to, the state courts. 

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