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July 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 Translators Association.

“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 going on.”