Okla. Courts To Expand Non-English Access Under DOJ Deal

By Emily Sawicki | September 1, 2023, 1:36 PM EDT ·

The Justice Department has struck a deal with the Oklahoma Supreme Court's administrative staff to provide more resources to individuals with limited English proficiency, resolving a 2021 complaint alleging the state's courts fail to provide adequate language interpretation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The DOJ and the Oklahoma Supreme Court's Administrative Office of the Courts, or AOC, finalized a memorandum of understanding on Thursday laying out the state's commitment to increase language resources at all court proceedings, including oral and written language assistance for non-English speakers and those with limited English language abilities.

The complaint, lodged in 2021, alleged the district court in Mayes County — a rural county in northeast Oklahoma outside Tulsa — "failed to provide meaningful access" for an individual in need of interpretation services in a family court case, according to the DOJ's announcement on Thursday.

Resolution of the complaint came in part through legislation the Oklahoma AOC proposed shortly after an investigation commenced in June 2021, the DOJ said. The legislation, now a state law, created a fund to cover expenses tied to language access for people with limited English proficiency who previously had to pay fees for interpretation services at Oklahoma courts.

The investigation was paused in September 2021 after Oklahoma court staff took steps toward resolving the civil rights complaints, the memorandum says. Those included not only the proposed new legislation, but other moves, such as hiring a staffer to coordinate language access across the state court system, providing training to judges and staff, and increasing access to remote interpretation services.

"People should not be penalized for their limited English proficiency and should not encounter difficulty in obtaining the language assistance services they need to fairly participate in court proceedings and operations," Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general within the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement provided by the DOJ.

"This agreement stands as a model for ensuring access to the courts for all people regardless of English proficiency and outlines the actions needed to eliminate barriers for court users with limited English proficiency in Oklahoma," Clarke added.

The work toward resolving language access barriers in Oklahoma is not complete, the memorandum of understanding says.

The Oklahoma AOC is now tasked with developing a statewide language access program, which must ensure that resources continue to be offered free of charge. The court staff must also implement a system to track needs at various courts and dispense notices in various languages for court users to learn about resources available to them, each within 180 days.

The Oklahoma AOC pledged to develop a statewide language access complaint system within 270 days, and provide judges and court staff with guidance for remote interpreter use and bilingual staff assessments, as well as commence a project to broaden access to non-English versions of vital documents, including forms commonly used by self-represented litigants.

"With the new state law and the MOU, Oklahoma has demonstrated a commitment to improving access to justice in our state," U.S. Attorney Clinton J. Johnson for the Northern District of Oklahoma said in a statement provided by the DOJ. "We are committed to working with our state courts to ensure compliance with Title VI and related civil rights laws."

A representative for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma was not immediately available to comment Friday.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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