Imagine trying to fight for custody of your kids — or against your own eviction — in a language you don’t speak.
That’s the reality for some drawn into Pennsylvania’s civil courts.
The newly released “Language Access Plan for the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania” provides a blueprint to bring a the state’s 60 judicial districts toward compliance with state and federal laws mandating language access.
The plan will “buttress our efforts, and make them more uniform across the state, provide some additional resources,” said Mary Vilter, coordinator for court access with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. That includes providing signage in the most commonly spoken languages other than English for display in state courts, as well as monitoring and evaluating how local policies compare to with the state plan.
The plan adds to a national conversation around the importance of language access at every stage of a judicial proceeding and a growing awareness of unlawful gaps in that access.
A 2015 survey by Temple University Beasley School of Law’s Sheller Center for Social Justice of 79 magisterial district courts — out of more than 500 — found a number of gaps between implementation of Pennsylvania’s language-access law and actual practice. The law requires courts to provide free language access to any hearing-impaired or low-English proficient person who is a “principal party in interest or a witness” in a court proceeding.
A third of respondents used non-certified interpreters — including friends or family members of court-involved non-English speakers — to provide language access.
“Only about half of [those] courts surveyed stated that they provide free, in-person, certified interpreters for [low-English proficient] individuals in all civil proceedings,” according to the survey.
In 2015, all 60 judicial districts were required to adopt individual language-access plans.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed two complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice, flagging a case in Berks County and another in Bucks County where non-English speakers were not provided interpretation, to the detriment of their cases.
‘More aspirational than descriptive’
Legal advocates praised the plan — but also questioned its ability to bring hundreds of Pennsylvania courts in line with state and federal laws.
“The latest plan is certainly a welcome development. It’s more aspirational, though, than descriptive of what’s going on,” said Vic Walczak, legal director with the ACLU.
“I think implementation is a big question mark and I think monitoring is a big question mark,” said Jennifer Lee, professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law who oversees the Sheller Center’s surveys.
Lead time for courts to implement the plan’s recommendations is as short as a few weeks for some and as long as a year for others. After that come monitoring and evaluation by a staff that comprises two full-time employees, according to Vilter.
If problems are detected — either through a complaint form available to court clients or through online software to track language-access requests across state courts — “our mechanism is to go back and speak to the administration at the local level and find out what’s going on,” said Vilter.
The most requested language in commonwealth courts is Spanish, while the second is American Sign Language, according to the report.