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Limited English Proficiency No Bar to Understanding Courts
Federal courts will have additional tools as they reach out to an
increasing segment of the U.S. population with limited English
proficiency. A repository of court forms already translated into Spanish
or Portuguese is now accessible for court use on the Judiciary’s
intranet and a translation project eventually will provide model forms
in Spanish for use by courts nationwide.
According to 2000 Census Bureau statistics, there are over
37 million people in the United States over the age of 18 who speak a
language other than English—21 million of whom are Spanish speaking. Of
those Spanish-speaking people, about 6.9 million speak English poorly or
not at all.
“The federal courts are well aware that some litigants and
defendants may have Limited English Proficiency (LEP),” said Judge John
R. Tunheim (D. Minn.), chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on
Court Administration and Case Management (CACM). “In order to help them
understand and have better access to the courts, some courts have
translated court information and various forms and have made them
available either at the courthouse or on their websites.”
For example, the District of New Mexico has translated
into Spanish information on the federal judicial system, frequently
asked questions, and a glossary of terms used in federal courts. Among
other forms, the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas have the case
data form and general case/office information available in Spanish. The
Southern District of New York has translated into Spanish the Miranda
Warning, along with forms on drug testing notification, electronic
monitoring instructions and home confinement, and conditions of
probation. The District of Nebraska has the consulate notice form
available in Spanish, in addition to the notice of right to appeal and
the petition to enter a plea of guilty.
Generally, the translated forms present information in
both English and Spanish. For example, the District of Puerto Rico, in
its motion to proceed in forma pauperis, follows an English paragraph
with its Spanish translation, paragraph by paragraph.
Because courts have acted independently to translate court
forms and information, few are aware of the universe of translated
forms—a current total of approximately 50 different forms. At the
request of CACM, translated federal court forms were gathered together
and are now available on the Judiciary’s intranet for court use.
The Judicial Conference Committee on International
Judicial Relations also has encouraged the posting of several translated
versions of educational documents, such as The Federal Court System in the United States, on the Judiciary’s internet website at www.uscourts.gov/library/publications.html.
CACM now has turned its attention to developing models for forms in Spanish.
There are advantages to developing national uniform
translations. Forms may vary from court to court according to a
translator’s skills, and some automated translation sites provide very
literal and incorrect translation of legal terms. Model forms would
ensure an overall level of quality control and accuracy.
The Administrative Office has begun to identify court
interpreters who could assist in planning, and a CACM subcommittee,
chaired by Judge Paul D. Borman (E.D. Mich.), has been created to
oversee the translation process. Although the skill sets for
interpreting speech and translating text are not the same, some
certified Spanish court interpreters have experience with the
translation of documents and some are certified by the American
“We continue to receive input from the courts on what
they’d like to see translated,” said Tunheim. “The AO also has received
input from federal defenders and Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys.”
Federal courts do not accept filings in languages other
than English. However, judges and court staff are eager to assist
individuals with limited English proficiency in their understanding of
the legal process. “The judge has the responsibility to ensure that a
defendant understands the proceedings,” said Tunheim. “When a person’s
liberty and property are at stake, it is important they know what is