ABA issues guidance to lawyers regarding clients with language differences

The American Bar Association has released a set of guidelines attorneys can follow when they don’t speak the same language as their clients.

Formal Opinion 500, issued by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibly, was published Oct. 6.

In the opinion, the ABA ethics committee outlines steps lawyers should consider when communication challenges arise, including how to use a qualified interpreter or translator capable of explaining legal concepts.

“In assessing the qualifications of a prospective interpreter or translator, a lawyer should verify that the individual is skilled in the particular language or dialect required,” the ABA opinion says. “In addition, the lawyer should confirm that the individual has the expertise needed to comprehend the legal concepts/terminology at issue so that the legal advice being provided is communicated accurately in a language or format accessible to the client.”

There are more than 67 million U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home. In Indiana, there are currently 200,000 Hoosiers who are limited in English proficiency or who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.

There are also more than 160 interpreters in Indiana, speaking more than 10 languages, certified by the state’s high court. These court interpreters help explain complex legal concepts and help guide non-English-speaking individuals through the legal process.

Additionally, the Supreme Court provides an interpretation service called LanguageLine, which offers 240 languages, for emergency use.

In the ABA opinion, the organization wrote that it’s important that lawyers make “reasonable efforts” to ensure client confidentially while using translators.

The opinion said social and cultural differences can present issues within the client-lawyer relationship, and lawyers shouldn’t assume translators have deep cultural expertise because they speak a client’s language.

Overall, it’s the lawyer’s responsibility to make sure their client understands what’s happening in their case, according to the ABA.

“When there are language considerations affecting the reciprocal exchange of information, a lawyer must ensure that the client understands the legal significance of translated or interpreted communications, and that the lawyer understands the client’s communications … ,” the opinion says.

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