Many activists in the legal aid community have joined together in a Campaign for Litigants' Equal Participation

Many activists in the legal aid community have joined together in a Campaign for Litigants’ Equal Participation (Campaign). The campaign is seeking prompt implementation of recommendations made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Judicial System and is advocating for litigants’ equal access to Pennsylvania’s judicial system and proceedings before state administrative agencies without regard to litigants’ English language proficiency or disabilities. Click here for more information.

The campaign was organized by the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (including Community Legal Services, Inc. and Friends of Farmworkers, Inc.), and includes the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Asian Americans United, Disabilities Law Project, Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Inc., National Lawyers Guild Philadelphia Chapter, Philadelphia Folklore Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Women’s Law Project.

In March 2003 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee of Racial and Gender Bias in the Judicial System issued an extensive report and recommendations. Chapter one of the fourteen chapters dealt with Litigants with Limited English Proficiency. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Judicial System made its findings and recommendations after exhaustive study as to changes needed to make the state judicial system accessible to persons with limited English proficiency. The committee recommended that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should:

  1. Establish for all courts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania a policy that all persons, including parties to judicial proceedings, witnesses appearing therein, victims in criminal proceedings, and members of the public seeking information from offices of the courts, shall have equal access to justice in the judicial system of Pennsylvania without regard to their English language proficiency.
  2. Require that all courts provide qualified interpreters to litigants at no charge, in order that LEP parties and witnesses may fully and fairly participate in court proceedings and obtain reasonable access to the court system.
  3. Require that the courts translate forms and other documents to the extent necessary to provide access to the court system to those unable to read English.
  4. Require that all court interpreters obtain certification pursuant to a recognized statewide certification program, maintain their proficiency through continuing education, and adhere to standards of professional conduct.
  5. Require the adoption of a code of professional responsibility for judicial interpreters together with mechanisms to assure that all interpreters are familiar with the code and are subject to discipline for any violation. 
  6. Establish within the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts  (AOPC) a Language Services Office, similar to those established by other states, staffed by professional administrative personnel experienced with issues related to court interpretation and translation, and funded sufficiently to carry out its mission.

Click here for more information.

Language access has been an important issue in Pennsylvania for a number of years. The Pennsylvania Bar Association adopted a resolution in May 1994 on the need for a system of certification for interpreters in state courts. It provides as follows:

Pennsylvania Bar Association
Resolution on Pennsylvania Court Interpreters

Adopted by House of Delegates, May 1994

Whereas, Pennsylvania has no system to regulate the quality of interpreters used in its courts; and

Whereas, the quality of interpretation is vital to the rights of limited English proficiency litigants in Pennsylvania courts; and

Whereas, the predominantly monolingual trial judges and attorneys in Pennsylvania are ill-equipped to monitor the quality of court interpretation; and

Whereas, the use of interpreters has grown dramatically in the last 10 years with the greater diversity in Pennsylvania's population; and

Whereas, the vendors who supply interpreters to the courts do not test for linguistic competency; and

Whereas the Court Interpreters Act of 1978 only certifies federal court interpreters in three languages, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo:

Therefore, Be it Resolved that the Pennsylvania Bar Association supports the institution of an independent court-based program to test and certify the linguistic competency of interpreters used in Pennsylvania courts.

Therefore, Be it Resolved that the Pennsylvania Bar Association authorizes its president to take all necessary steps to institute an interpreter certification program in the Pennsylvania courts.

Therefore, Be it Resolved that the Pennsylvania Bar Association authorizes its president to take all necessary steps to expand the list of languages for which certification will be available under the Court Interpreters Act of 1978.

Therefore, Be it Resolved that the Pennsylvania Bar Association authorizes its president to take all necessary steps to urge rule changes in the courts of Pennsylvania to compel the use of audio recording equipment whenever an interpreter’s services are used in order to ensure litigants and the courts an opportunity to verify the accuracy of interpretation.

Click here for information concerning Senate Bill 669 which is pending on the issue of language certification.

 

The Philadelphia Bar Association Board of Governor’s unanimously approved a “Resolution Concerning Equal Access to Courts and Administrative Agencies By Limited English Proficient Persons and Persons with Disabilities” that initially was promoted by the campaign and revised through discussions with the local legal community. The resolution received a written commitment from the president judge of the First Judicial District to work with the Philadelphia Bar Association on local response to the recommendations of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias on persons with limited English proficiency. Click here for more information.

 

Click here for the prior Pennsylvania Bar Association resolution from 1994.
Click here for the prior Philadelphia Bar Association Resolution on the same subject.

The Friends of Farmworkers Web site now contains a voluminous amount of information that may be very useful to anyone interested in the rights of persons with limited English proficiency or disabilities to equal participation in matters before courts and administrative agencies. The principal gateway web links for these materials can be found at:

LEP Links
Limited English Proficiency Issues
Pa. Supreme Court Racial and Gender Bias

Friends of Farmworkers also has analyzed the data from the 2000 Census by county as to persons with limited English proficiency. Click here for that information. See in particular, Ranked Summary by Counties in Pennsylvania  with largest numbers of Limited English Proficient Persons as reflected in Census 2000 data.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias report directed its recommendations at the Supreme Court rather than the legislature. However, a bill on interpreter certification was introduced into the Pennsylvania State Senate in late April 2003 and hearings may be held on it over the next few months. Visit the following Web sites for more information:


Senate Bill 669, Session 2003 Proposed to Amend Title 42 (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, providing for court interpreters at  http://friendsfw.org/LEP/Legis/SB669.htm. The legislation does not address the recommendations for provision of interpreters at no cost to litigants in civil proceedings. The legal analysis supporting that initiative was primarily based upon interpretation of requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  See: http://friendsfw.org/Links/LEP_Links.htm#LEP  and  http://friendsfw.org/LEP/Legal/Legal_Analysis_Report_LEP.htm

It is clear that support from within the legislature, particularly as to funding, could be key to effectively advancing this Campaign. For more information, or to get involved, contact:

 

Arthur N. Read

General Counsel
Friends of Farmworkers, Inc.
924 Cherry Street, 4th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19107-2411
Telephone: 215-733-0878, Ext. 150
Fax: 215-733-0876
Email:  aread@friendsfw
Web:    http://www.Friendsfw.org/