Legal Aid has long fought for equal language access for our limited English proficient (“LEP”) and non-English proficient (“NEP”) client community, but this access is especially important during this unprecedented global pandemic in which new information is arriving and evolving daily. The DC Council has passed emergency legislation related to issues that directly impact our client community such as rent freezes, mortgage deferrals, consumer protections from debt collectors, and expansions of unemployment benefits. The Superior Court issued an order postponing filing deadlines and non-emergency hearings until after May 15th. In these troubling times, there is an immense amount of untranslated information that is relevant to our client community.
The DC Courts’ Language Access Advisory Committee, which includes members of the court and representatives from the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers, including Legal Aid, met remotely in April to discuss ways the court could expand the availability of information to the LEP/NEP community. In response, the court has taken some key steps toward improving language access to information about the court’s operational status during the pandemic. Specifically, the court:
- Posted a video in American Sign Language with information about the court’s operating status. The National Center for State Courts identified the court’s ASL video as a good model for other jurisdictions in its “Tiny Chat” video (at minute 4:40);
- Translated the Coronavirus advisories and orders on its website into Spanish and Amharic;
- Posted a list of legal service providers for those without an attorney in four additional languages: Spanish, Amharic, Chinese, and Tigrinya; and
- Translated the emergency signs posted on the exterior of court buildings.
Legal Aid applauds the court for taking these important steps to improve language access during the pandemic. But there is still important work to be done.
Both before and during the pandemic, some LEP and NEP parties have received court orders in English that they were unable to understand, even though the litigant’s limited English proficiency was clear in the court record. Navigating the court process in an unfamiliar language without an attorney is difficult under normal circumstances, but COVID-19 has made these challenges even more stark. In the current reality where parties are receiving court orders in the mail without the benefit of an in-person hearing with an interpreter, translation of court orders is more important than ever. Legal Aid encourages the court to adopt a policy of translating court orders in all cases with LEP or NEP parties to ensure equal access for all.