New task force meant to break down language barriers, aid court interpreters

Keywords Courts / interpreter
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Nearly 14,000 cases heard in Indiana’s trial courts in 2015 required a court interpretation service, a 21 percent increase from the previous year’s services and a 73 percent increase over 2013, when just under 8,000 cases required an interpreter.

Those services meet the needs of a variety of people, from Indianapolis’ Burmese population to Latino Hoosiers to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. As the number of litigants, witnesses or spectators requesting interpretation services continues to rise, the Indiana Supreme Court is taking steps to ensure those services are high-quality and far-reaching.

Through the Indiana Supreme Court’s recently created Advisory Task Force on Language Access in Indiana Courts, representatives from all areas of the legal community are studying how language can be a barrier to justice and how the state’s court system can improve its language services to remove that barrier.

“The main point is that we’re trying to develop a statewide language access plan so that limited English proficient litigants have equal access,” said Vigo Superior Judge Lakshmi Reddy, co-chair of the task force.

The task force, created by an Indiana Supreme Court order in January, is still in its early stages, Reddy said, but its members are already beginning the work of checking in with courts around the state to see what resources they need to improve their interpretation resources. Per the order, members of the 12-person task force must develop an initial report with their findings and recommendations to the Indiana Supreme Court on areas ripe for improvement. That report is due by Dec. 1.

“Left unaddressed, this impediment will undercut the faith Hoosiers have in our justice system and the fairness of the system itself,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the order creating the task force.

Kathleen Casey, a staff attorney for the Indiana Public Defender Commission and member of the task force, has seen firsthand how language barriers can cause limited English proficient, or LEP, litigants to question whether the system is fair.

In her former work as a Marion County public defender, Casey worked with a variety of litigants from different cultural backgrounds who needed court interpretation services to help them through their cases. The process of moving through the court system is inherently daunting, Casey said, but when a language barrier is present, a litigant’s anxiety only grows stronger.

The issue of high-quality court interpretation services can be particularly poignant at the public defender level, when indigent clients might already feel that the deck is stacked against them.

“It’s part of your duty to make sure that your client understands what’s going on,” Casey said.

For Lun Pieper, a deputy prosecutor with the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, her work with Indianapolis Burmese residents was already focused on overcoming language and cultural barriers, even before she was appointed to the task force.

A native of Myanmar who speaks Burmese and Chin, Pieper has dedicated her legal career to helping Burmese residents, many of whom are refugees, understand the basics of Indiana law to help them stay out of trouble. For example, Burmese motorists may not know that they are required to stop for school buses, an oversight that can lead to a traffic citation.

Pieper’s cultural educational work also extends to helping legal professionals and law enforcement understand a Burmese person’s point of view. For example, she works with police departments to educate them on how Burmese residents might respond to an encounter with police. She also works with the courts to help Burmese litigants and Indiana judges understand the differences between their cultures’ judicial systems.

language-charts.gifBut Indiana’s 14,000-person Burmese population is not the only group that needs assistance navigating the state’s legal system, which is why Rush wanted to create a task force that would address equal access concerns for litigants of all backgrounds, Pieper said. Aside from Burmese, plaintiffs and defendants who speak Spanish, Chinese and American Sign Language will benefit from the task force’s efforts toward improving court interpretation services, Reddy said.

“We’ve had LanguageLine for quite a while, but this is trying to be a little more broad,” the Vigo County judge said, referencing a court program that allows LEP litigants to call a court phone number and receive interpretation services in a number of languages.

Rhonda Marcum, manager of Indiana’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in the Family and Social Services Administration, who considers herself to be severely hard of hearing, said she was interested in joining the task force because of legal situations such as the Dustin King case. In that case, King, a deaf litigant, was denied an ASL interpreter for a court-ordered mediation session in his child custody case. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ultimately ruled that the denial of an interpreter for King was discrimination, and Marcum said the case illustrates the need for a greater understanding of the deaf and hard of hearing community. The case is currently pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“This task force is about improving the accommodations and how we get there,” she said.

The Language Access Task Force is comprised of various working committees, and Marcum is the chair of the VRI, or video remote interpreting group. Her role on the working group is to educate legal professionals about VRI, teaching them when it is an appropriate tool to use or when another form of ASL interpretation might be better.

Allocating enough resources for interpreting services is crucial, the task force members said, with Marcum noting that if one interpreter is translating in ASL for both a plaintiff and a defendant, it can seem to the litigants as if the interpreter is taking sides.

“There would need to be two separate interpreters to make it more neutral,” she said.

Both Pieper and Casey sit on the Outreach and Communication Working Group, a subcommittee tasked with ensuring courts across the state are aware of the resources available to them and helping legal professionals access those resources when necessary.

Some practice areas, such as immigration law, tend by nature to lend themselves to needing interpretation services, Pieper said, but the task force members stressed their goal is to improve equal access to justice for all litigants, regardless of their legal issue.

“You can’t have competent representation without the ability to understand what your lawyer’s saying,” Casey said.•

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