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U.S. Department of Justice Settles 12-Year-Old ACLU Complaint Over Lack of Court Interpreters

Posted: April 21, 2016|Category: Civil Rights Category: Fair Administration of Justice

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Twelve years after the ACLU of Rhode Island first filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice about the problem, and two years after the R.I. Judiciary adopted a detailed plan to address the issue, the DOJ announced today it was formally closing its case against the state judiciary for failing to adequately provide language assistance to persons with limited English proficiency (LEP).

The DOJ made the announcement after monitoring for two years a detailed plan adopted by the state judiciary in 2014 to ensure adequate language interpreter services were available to all clients in the state’s courts. The plan, adopted as part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ in response to the ACLU’s complaint, included a Language Access Plan that, among other things, required ongoing translation of forms and signs in court buildings and provided that all criminal and civil defendants would receive notices at the beginning of a case advising them of their right to free interpreter services.

When the ACLU first filed its complaint in 2004 about the lack of language interpreter services provided to individuals with limited English proficiency in criminal court proceedings, judges were acknowledging that defendants were occasionally kept in jail for days awaiting interpreters to translate proposed plea bargains. Criminal defendants often had to have family members or friends to interpret for them as courts relied on a combination of freelance interpreters, bilingual relatives, and even volunteers from the audience to act as interpreters.  The complaint pointed to comments made by judges as far back as 1987 expressing concern about the problem.

In a letter sent today to ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown, the Acting Chief of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Christine Stoneman, wrote:

“My staff monitored the RIJ’s [Rhode Island Judiciary] progress for the following two years [since the 2014 plan was adopted] and when needed took action to remedy implementation problems. RIJ has completed the work agreed to in the Agreement and Plan, and recently confirmed that ‘RIJ will permanently retain its policy of providing appropriate, qualified language assistance in all proceedings and court operations at no cost to limited English proficient persons in accordance with the terms contained’ in the Executive Order, Language Access Plan, and Agreement.  The conditions for closure having been fulfilled, the Agreement has terminated, and the case is now closed.”

The DOJ letter acknowledged the assistance of the ACLU and other local   groups in the resolution of the case and said that the “resulting benefits for limited English proficient court users, the public, and the court itself will be substantial and enduring.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “It has been a bumpy and long road, but the rights of LEP individuals are much better protected than they were when we first filed this complaint. Of course, this remains a work in progress and we will need to be vigilant to ensure that the agreement with the DOJ continues to be vigorously implemented. We greatly appreciate the hard work of the DOJ and the judiciary over the years in addressing this fundamental issue of fairness for participants in the state’s court system.”

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