'Access To Justice Means Language Justice,' DOJ Official Says

By Marco Poggio | March 4, 2024, 5:41 PM EST ·

The U.S. Department of Justice said some language barriers in the justice system have been mitigated but that more work needs to be done to ensure non-English speakers have equitable access to the courts. 

During the keynote speech at a conference at the Seattle University School of Law on Friday, the director of the Justice Department's Office for Access to Justice, Rachel Rossi, touted the progress made by jurisdictions across the country in removing language barriers for people who have limited English proficiency and to ensure compliance with federal law forbidding discrimination.

At the same time, she said, individual jurisdictions must do their part to facilitate access to their court systems for non-English speakers.

"Now is the time for our institutions and legal systems to reexamine the principles, standards and practices, and to evaluate whether they truly support justice being served fairly and equally to all," Rossi said, kicking off the Conference on Language, Justice and Technology sponsored by the American Bar Association.

Rossi offered her own experience as a child of immigrants — a mother born in Greece and a father born in the Dominican Republic — both of whom came to the U.S. when they were young and did not speak English as their first language.

"At a young age, I intuitively understood the need for language access," Rossi said. "I understood that dismantling language barriers could better allow my parents and family to benefit the institutions they engaged with because of the wealth of expertise, knowledge and skills they brought to the table."

To comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance, state courts receiving federal funds must, for instance, provide appropriate language assistance services to individuals with limited English proficiency. Under the law, court users must receive interpretation and translation services provided at no cost during hearings and trials.

The ABA is currently working on updating 2012 Standards for Language Access in Courts.

The Office for Access to Justice, which went from a handful of employees to a staff of over 40 people since it was revived early in the Biden administration, has completed over 50 translation projects for 12 DOJ offices and 14 U.S. attorney's offices across the country on materials such as know-your-rights pamphlets, victim rights materials, press releases, online web pages, forms and outreach materials, Rossi said.

In 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the creation of a new position — language access coordinator — and appointed Ana Paula Noguez Mercado to the post. Mercado, who also serves on the ABA's Language Access Standards for Language Access in Courts Advisory Committee, chairs a group made up of DOJ officials that focuses on mitigating language barriers.

And last year, for the first time in a decade, the DOJ revised its language access practices to expand engagement with communities, including people who are deaf, to better assess their needs when it comes to language access. The updated policies include guidance on increasing language access to the department's web pages and communications, Rossi said.

"We, like all of you, recognize that access to justice means language justice. We believe that justice belongs to everyone, regardless of language used," Rossi said. "People should never be excluded from the promises of our laws or from the protections of our courts because of the languages they use to communicate."

In seeking to update and retool its language access policies, Rossi said the Justice Department is prioritizing the perspectives of impacted communities to expand access to justice.

"We must start by engaging with the community we serve," she said. "It begins with the humility and recognition that our systems have failed too many communities, and a desire to better understand the systemic inequities that persist and that create unequal access."

Providing language access can sometimes be difficult, Rossi said. Budgets for translation services can be scarce, in particular for languages that are less spoken and for indigenous languages. Those services have significant costs, she said.

"We are eager to continue finding ways to serve as a partner to legal service providers, courts and other leaders seeking to expand language access across the country," she said.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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