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Standard 5.7 on Implementing Language Justice

Standard 5.6 | Table of Contents | Standard 5.8


A legal aid organization should ensure that all language communities receive systematic and fair treatment and respect for their fundamental language rights: The human and civil rights of linguistic groups, such as the right to preserve non-dominant languages, to access critical services without language barriers, and to live free from linguistic discrimination in education, workplaces, civic participation, and all other contexts.


General Considerations

An organization has the responsibility to promote language justice by providing language access to all language communities, including those using American Sign Language (ASL), as set forth in this standard and commentary. 

An organization should have the capacity to communicate with all language communities, either through bilingual staff or qualified interpreters. It should offer legal information and other forms of non-representational services in the languages used and read by the communities it serves. Its intake processes should be accessible to persons from all language communities and ability levels in its service area. Technology and video conferencing services should be employed for the use of off-site interpreters that can benefit from the visual cues critical for effective communication.

The challenge of communicating effectively with members of the client community in their own language(s) can be complex, as many organizations serve diverse immigrant populations settling in their service areas. Effectively serving persons who use non-dominant languages or with limited English proficiency is often complicated by a lack of familiarity with the U.S. legal system and, because of their experience in their home country or as a marginalized community in the U.S., they may distrust lawyers and the legal process. In addition to addressing potential language barriers, therefore, an organization needs to be responsive to cultural issues that may inhibit some persons from accessing its service, as well as limited language ability related to disability.

It requires a sustained and comprehensive effort for an organization to be accessible to all persons who are non-dominant language users or have limited proficiency in English, especially if the firm is in an area with many language groups. Nonetheless, organizations operating in areas with relatively few clients who are non-dominant language users still have a responsibility to communicate effectively with the occasional individuals it serves who are non-dominant language users. 

Communication with Clients who are Non-Dominant Language Users

Communication with clients. An organization needs to ensure that its practitioners have the tools necessary to represent their clients, including being able to communicate effectively with non-dominant language users or those with disabilities in order to promote language justice for all communities. 

Clear communication between the practitioner and client is at the core of effective practice. A practitioner has a responsibility to understand the client's circumstances fully and to suggest an appropriate course of action. The responsibility to inquire into the client's circumstance exists whether the organization is offering limited or full representation. A practitioner who cannot understand fully what the client is saying or asking of the practitioners may not be able to determine the full circumstances of the case. There is an equal risk that the client will not fully understand the practitioner's advice or explanation. The burden of acquiring language services should not fall on the individuals who do not use English as their dominant language. Instead, the organization should be proactive about identifying the needs of people with disabilities or non-dominant language users and providing the necessary services. Federal and state laws may also require services to be provided in certain languages for those who are limited in English proficiency.

In order for its practitioners to meet their professional responsibilities to provide competent representation to the client, therefore, the practitioner either needs to communicate in the client's language directly or through a competent, qualified interpreter.This responsibility attaches both to persons who speak a language other than English and to persons who rely on sign language to communicate. At a minimum, "qualified interpreter" means a person with advanced oral or signing proficiency in their working languages, knowledge of professional practices, and adherence to the interpreter's code of ethics, who has been determined to be qualified by a formal certifying bodyor based on experience, training, and references. 

The organization should make certain that its practitioners who are not fluent in the language used by their clients understand their responsibility to use interpreters, unless it is evident that communication will be unimpaired for both the client and the practitioner without an interpreter. Interpreters should generally be provided whenever a client requests one. To ensure accuracy of the interpretation and that no breach of confidentiality occurs, the organization should procure its own qualified interpreter and avoid using interpreters brought by the person being interviewed. 

Critical documents, such as correspondence explaining the client's rights and responsibilities, should be translated into the client's language and tested for readability in that language. It is a best practice to do a plain language adaptation of English materials before translating them into other languages to promote accessibility. Machine translation alone is insufficient for translation of critical and complex legal information, so machine translation must only be used in conjunction with a qualified human translator. A qualified translator means a person with advanced written proficiency in their working languages, knowledge of professional practices, and adherence to the translator's code of ethics, who has been determined to be qualified by a formal certifying body such as the American Translators Association or based on experience, training, and references. If the client is unable to read in either language, or if requested by the client, documents should be both sight-translated (i.e., read aloud in the client's dominant language) and explained in plain language. The organization should also be prepared to accommodate the needs of persons who have a vision-related disability and should recognize, for example, the need to put essential documents in a readable form, such as in Braille for persons who are blind or visually impaired. 

In court, in administrative hearings, and other proceedings, an organization representing a client who is a non-dominant language user, or is deaf or hard of hearing, should ensure that a competent interpreter and written translations are provided by the court or administrative agency. Even when an interpreter is provided by the court or administrative agency, the organization may need to have its own interpreter present to facilitate attorney-client communications.

Meaningful participation in legal proceedings generally depends on the person being able to understand what the judge or hearing officer, the witnesses, and the advocates are saying, as well as being able to communicate with the advocate in a confidential manner. Similarly, when organizations refer clients to other organizations (such as for social services or case management) or government entities for services, benefits, and relief, organizations should advocate for and ensure that meaningful language access will be provided. 

Friends, family, and others accompanying the client should not serve as interpreters or translators. If the client insists on using their own interpreter, there should be protocols and safeguards in place. This could include having the client sign an acknowledgment that is either translated or sight-translated to them that they are choosing to use the person they brought, even though a free interpreter can be provided.

Communication with persons receiving non-representational services. Some persons seeking assistance will not be accepted as clients but will be given non-representational services in the form of legal information. Legal information such as a brochure or a disposition letter may be offered in group settings or to individuals online or in writing. The organization may also offer instructions through clinics or other means as to how self-represented litigants can represent themselves before a court or administrative body.

An organization should make its non-representational assistance available in the principal languages used by persons in the communities it serves. Written and online legal information should be translated into the predominant languages used by those in the service area using qualified translators. Organizations should not rely on machine translation alone to provide adequate translated written materials. If machine translation is used, a skilled human translator must review and edit the translated material to preserve clear meaning and plain language. Review and translation by this process must also be done any time the materials are updated or changed. To the degree possible, the organization should have the capacity to hold community legal education sessions and pro se clinics in the principal languages of the communities served. 

The organization should be cognizant of the degree to which the lack of capacity in English will be a factor during self-representation and should instruct individuals receiving pro se support in how to obtain a competent interpreter. In some cases, an organization may determine that it will represent persons with limited knowledge of English in matters in which it would instruct others who are proficient in English to represent themselves. 

It will not be possible in all instances to translate legal information materials into every language spoken in the client community. Some persons who are not proficient in English will speak a language that is not spoken by a significant number of individuals in the client community. In addition, some languages are not written or are read and written primarily by scholars, so that translation is not practical. If legal information materials are not available in the language of a person whom the organization seeks to help, they should be sight-translated and explained orally using plain language, if possible. Organizations should also explore creative methods of relaying such information, such as through multilingual informational videos, the use of various social media platforms, and partnerships with social services agencies serving the client community that may be willing to act as self-help navigators.

Intake. The organization should be accessible at intake to all persons regardless of their preferred language. The degree to which an organization is capable of communicating in the language of persons who are non-dominant language users may determine whether such persons seek assistance in the first place and whether they follow through to get the assistance they need. It is important, therefore, that the organization signal its openness to all language groups. Signs identifying the organization should be in the major written languages of the communities it serves. The organization should have language capability among its intake personnel either in the form of bilingual staff or readily accessible interpreter services provided in real-time. Telephone intake systems should offer options for major languages that are identified early in any menu of options or separate dedicated lines for each major language, so that callers who are non-dominant language users will learn that services are available in their language and will not be discouraged by lengthy announcements in a language they do not understand. Options should also be available for ASL interpretation via TTY (teletypewriter) or other video conference service.

Responsibilities of the Organization

Organizations planning to serve non-dominant language users. Organizations need to start by moving from an orientation of providing language access to promoting language justice. Organizations should develop a practical written plan of how they intend to serve individuals whose dominant language is not English or another language commonly spoken by the organization's staff. They should use local data to inform the plan and reach out to multiple sources to understand all language and disability needs in the service area. Local data could be from the U.S. census and from disaggregated demographic data, such as information from local government benefit agencies, schools, and other community-based organizations. Further guidance on the responsibilities of the organization to promote language justice may be found in Standard 2.3.