LA Superior Court Boosts Translation Help

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a victory for Los Angeles residents navigating the court system in languages other than English, the Department of Justice has reached an agreement with the L.A. Superior Court to expand its interpretation and translation services.
     The court will build on language services it already offers, the Justice Department said, by introducing free interpreters in unlimited civil matters alongside the expanded language services for criminal and civil matters the court already has introduced.
     The Department of Justice began investigating L.A. County Superior Court after the Legal Aid Foundation accused the court in 2010 of discriminating against people based on their nationality, by failing to offer the language assistance they need to seek justice.
     The court acknowledged that its services had been lacking but said many improvements had been made in a court system serving a county of 10 million residents, more than half of whom speak a language other than English.
     According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2014, nearly 57 percent of people in the county speak a language other than English at home, and almost 26 percent speak English “less than very well.”
     Court budgets across the country buckled after the Great Recession of 2008 and again after austerity measures passed by state and federal lawmakers led to massive budget shortfalls in court systems.
     “After state-imposed budget reductions forced the elimination of one quarter of the court’s staff, the Los Angeles Superior Court radically restructured its operations which, in many instances, resulted in reduced services to the public,” the court said Wednesday.
     In 2010 the Legal Aid Foundation filed an administrative complaint accusing the court of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the basis of national origin.
     The group’s clients included a single mother who had to navigate the court system in a custody battle for her 7-year-old son and a grandmother who wanted a restraining order against a maintenance manager who she said had sexually assaulted her at her apartment.
     Both women were native Korean speakers.
     The Justice Department began investigating in 2011 and in May 2013 sent the court a letter notifying it that its policies, practices and procedures did not comply with federal civil rights law.
     Under the compliance agreement, reached on Sept. 12 this year, the court is required to monitor complaints, offer free interpretation for all proceedings and interpretation and translation services.
     Some recent innovations at the court include Gina, an animated online “avatar” that allows people to pay traffic tickets in six languages, including English, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.
     The court offers remote interpreters in 200 languages during business hours at its courthouses, including Cantonese, Hmong, Kurdish, Mon, Latvian and Norwegian.
     Presiding Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl said the court is serious about providing justice to people no matter which language they speak.
     “We welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate how seriously we take this most important aspect of our mission: to provide access to justice to those with limited English proficiency. I believe that the approaches outlined in the agreement represent a state-of-the-art model for language services in state trial courts,” Kuhl said in a statement.
     Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles attorney Joann Lee was cautiously optimistic, calling the agreement a “great step in the right direction.”
     “There is, however, much more work to be done, and we look forward to working with the courts to ensure that limited English proficient individuals are provided true and meaningful access to justice,” Lee said in a statement.
     In a telephone interview Thursday, Lee said the courts were working hard to ensure there are interpreters for courtroom proceedings, but that she would like to see a more welcoming environment at courthouses.
     “There should be more signage, more access at the counters. And I know they’re taking steps to do that but all of those things have not fully been implemented,” she said, adding that the group had sometimes seen delays when it asked for certain languages.
     “I also think what’s key is letting communities know about the language services, because a lot of individuals may not have thought of the courts as an option due to language barriers in terms of obtaining legal remedies. We want to make sure the word gets out that these services are available,” Lee said.
     In early 2015, the court made headway by providing free interpreters for family law, civil harassment, eviction, conservatorship and guardianship cases, the Legal Aid Foundation said. The court later expanded those services to include small claims and limited jurisdiction civil cases.
     The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement that it is still in discussions with the Judicial Council of California to ensure statewide compliance with the Civil Rights Act. The council intends to offer language services to speakers of limited English across California, the Legal Aid Foundation said.
     The court agreed to meet the targets in the agreement by Dec. 1, 2017.

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