A legal aid organization must ensure language justice for all legal services clients, including language assistance that incorporates different tools and strategies (e.g., a bilingual staff, interpretation, translation, signage, and outreach). The organization's management should evaluate whether all language groups have meaningful and equitable access to critical services, programs, and civic participation, including service on the organization's governing body.
Linguistic inclusion and language accessibility affects every part of the organization's interactions with its client communities. Staffing, planning, training, use of interpreters, program evaluations, governing body composition, and community interactions should all reflect careful assessment of and response to client population language needs. The organization's leaders should ensure that the organization complies with Standard 5.7.
Staffing should reflect the diversity of the communities served. Recruitment and retention of bilingual staff is critical in providing improved language access to non-dominant language users. Bilingual ability should be highly valued in hiring for all positions involving public contact. These positions should require proficiency in languages commensurate with the needs of local communities. To enhance its capacity for bilingual representation, a legal aid organization should make fluency in pertinent languages a preferred or, where appropriate, required skill when evaluating applicants for employment. Organizations should be certain to periodically assess the written and spoken linguistic proficiency of staff members who communicate directly with clients in a non-dominant language and compensate them appropriately.
Responsibilities to Promote Language Justice
In planning its service delivery methods, a legal aid organization should identify contact points where language barriers may exist for persons seeking and receiving services, and it should develop strategies, plans, and protocols to respond. Some means of delivering services, such as centralized/coordinated telephone or online intake, the availability of online information, and pro se clinics, may be of little use to persons who use non-dominant languages unless appropriate adjustments are made to provide meaningful services to them.
Program priorities, methods of providing services, and outreach programs should be designed so that legal issues of importance to non-dominant language users are addressed by the organization, as are issues of clients who are proficient in English. Organizations should consider targeting outreach to underserved language populations and developing partnerships with community-based organizations that serve such groups. Furthermore, the non-profit law firm or organization should have a policy of adapting materials to plain language before translation and ensuring that translated materials are readable, understandable, and accessible by community members. Organizations should go beyond the default of having services materials in English and Spanish only, as many other language groups are often significant, but excluded from language services.
The organization should budget adequate resources to meet the needs of persons who use non-dominant languages. This means that the organization must have systems to accurately track how much is expended on interpretation and translation services (language assistance services) so that the organization can include language assistance services as a line item in grant proposals and attorney fee requests when applicable, and when assessing budget needs for the upcoming fiscal year. When these costs are not anticipated, resources may be unavailable for staff to provide adequate language assistance services.
The organization must have a clear protocol for how it will respond to the needs of those who do not use English as their dominant language and should train its staff in its proper application. Some legal aid organizations will operate in an area with few non-dominant language users who are not proficient in English. Such organizations should, nevertheless, have a protocol for responding to the needs of individuals who do not use English as their dominant language and are seeking services from the organization. Organizations must be aware of and abide by statutory provisions that exist under state and federal law that prohibit discrimination against persons based on English language ability when providing
Training of Staff to Promote Language Justice
Staff should be trained in the fundamental importance of responding effectively to their communities' language needs and serving clients in their preferred language. This could include training on the organization's written plan for working with clients who do not use English as their dominant language. The organization should appoint a language coordinator or working group with the responsibility of bilingual/multilingual staff, language justice principles, legal mandates, language-specific vocabulary/grammar to enhance language skills, and language rights advocacy. Organizations must be certain that staff communicating directly with clients in a non-dominant language have appropriate knowledge of legal terms. It is also very important that the organization's management ensures bilingual staffing is properly resourced in relation to demand to avoid having bilingual staff members imposed with excess workloads as compared to non-bilingual staff members.
Interpreter Training and Requirements
The organization must have ready access to qualified interpreters and translation services to supplement bilingual staff and staff interpreters/translators. Competent interpreting and translating requires individuals with a range of skills. They need to be proficient in both languages, be familiar with legal terms and their meaning, and understand their role as an interpreter/translator. Furthermore, they must understand the need for neutrality, accuracy, completeness, and techniques that facilitate effective communication. Translating and interpreting are different tasks and require different skills. Interpreters and translators also need to be aware that they are agents of the legal aid organization and are bound by its duty to maintain communication confidentiality. These objectives can be achieved by ensuring that the organization's interpreters and translators adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct authored by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and
Additionally, management should commit to best practices, including providing accurate and high-quality interpreting, with the ability to do so through the utilization of technology (onsite, video-remote (VRI) with a strong internet connection, and over-the-phone interpreting (OPI); hiring qualified, trained interpreters who are compensated fairly; and providing high-quality training to staff on working with interpreters and translation of vital documents. While on-demand remote interpreting services are essential to meet the needs of callers and walk-ins, interpreting services should be pre-scheduled whenever possible in order to ensure the best match with the interpreter's expertise and the demands of the assignment (e.g., needing interpreters with legal training), and to allow time to provide interpreters with materials so they can prepare appropriately before the assignment. Pre-scheduling also provides time for the organization to arrange a "variant check" call between the interpreter and client to confirm that they use mutually intelligible linguistic variants in advance of the appointment.
Avoiding use of ad hoc interpreters such as family members or minors is very important. The organization should not allow the use of minors as interpreters. The use of family and friends to interpret gives rise to serious risks that the interpretation will not be neutral, and that the interpreter will not fully understand or be able to translate the legal options available. Further, a practitioner who uses a client's family member or friend as an interpreter should act consistently with their responsibilities under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rules 1.4 and 1.6, so that clients can understand any risks to privilege and confidentiality.
The organization must maintain a preference for in-person interpreting whenever feasible, unless there are other exigent factors, such as a public health crisis, and should have a plan for providing alternatives such as video interpreting or telephonic interpreting in those situations. Telephonic interpreting often loses the nuance and non-verbal aspects of communication and should not be a default unless no other alternatives are available.
The organization should evaluate, on a defined, periodic basis, its effectiveness in responding to its population's language needs. It should gather data regarding the languages used in the populations in its service area and by the persons it serves. The data should be used to identify emerging and underserved language groups, assist in prioritizing the languages most frequently encountered, and help the organization measure progress in responding to the various language groups in its service area. If significant language groups are identified that are not being adequately served, the organization should develop and implement a plan to address the deficiency. The organization should evaluate its plan annually by measuring changes in demographics, effect on services, response to language needs as they arise, response to unexpected languages, anticipated changes for the next year, and how to assess and measure service to clients.
Other Policies to Promote Language Justice
Organizations should establish relationships with local organizations with experience working with diverse communities and collaborate with trained interpreters and translators. The organization's management should also determine specific strategies about how to respond to and ensure meaningful access at all points of contact. As noted above, the organization should appoint a language coordinator or working group with adequate time, capacity, and authority toIf the language coordinator or working group does not have some degree of authority or ongoing support from leadership in the organization, staff may disregard the language access plan and protocols. Additionally, organizations should offer community education and information to client communities on their language rights and how to enforce them.