Professor, alumna work to improve language access in courts

July 28, 2017
Gillian Dutton
Gillian Dutton

Professor Gillian Dutton and 2008 graduate Kristi Cruz were both significant contributors to a new plan that assists state courts in ensuring access for all limited English proficient (LEP) people who need court services and programs.

Washington's Supreme Court and the Washington State Court Administrator published a Model Language Access Plan (LAP) and Deskbook earlier this month. The LAP and Deskbook reflect the work and collaboration between Washington State Courts and the U.S. Department of Justice, through its Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, which provided technical and resource development assistance to the State.

Dutton said that working on this new plan was a continuation of the work that she and Cruz did several years ago as they teamed up nationally with judges, interpreters, courts, advocates, and the Department of Justice to draft the ABA Standards for Language Access In Courts, approved by the ABA in February 2012.

Cruz, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, is a certified American Sign Language interpreter and created the CLEAR*ASL line in 2013 to provide direct legal services to deaf clients statewide in sign language by video phone. Dutton is the director of Seattle University School of Law's Externship Program.

"This new plan makes some significant improvements and once again puts Washington state at the forefront in this crucial area of access to courts," Dutton said.

"It ensures that interpreters are provided without charge in both civil and criminal settings, and provides a blueprint for courts to add language access in court-ordered and mandated services, areas that are expanding with the increased use of alternatives to incarceration," she said. "It also adds interpreter services for the deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing into the language access plan as a way to consolidate and improve those services."

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Safe Streets Act), and the regulations implementing these federal laws, all courts are required to provide language assistance services to all LEP individuals in civil and criminal court proceedings, and in all court-managed services and programs. The LAP and the Deskbook assist state courts in developing a written language access plan and creating or improving its language assistance services to meet federal civil rights obligations.

The Justice Department's initial engagement with the Washington State Courts began as a review of the King County Superior Court's (KCSC) language assistance services program. In 2011 and 2012, the Justice Department received complaints from LEP individuals who alleged they did not receive interpreter services in KCSC civil cases. In response, DOJ opened a civil rights review to determine whether KCSC's actions constituted national origin discrimination pursuant to Title VI, the Safe Streets Act, and their implementing regulations.

In early 2014, the KCSC agreed to provide language assistance services (including interpreter services) at no cost for LEP parties and persons in interest in court proceedings and operations, both civil and criminal. Until that time, KCSC had been providing these services without consideration of cost only in criminal cases. KCSC also agreed to provide DOJ information about the financial impact of extending its language services to civil cases. During that time, hundreds of additional LEP individuals received interpreter services in civil legal proceedings who otherwise may not have. In December 2015, KCSC agreed to continue to provide free language assistance services indefinitely. As a result, DOJ agreed to close its engagement with KCSC and, to replicate KCSC's success, sought to work with the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, its Office of Court Innovation, and the Washington State Interpreter Commission, and its community partners, in developing the LAP and Deskbook for the Washington State Court system as a whole.

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