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The Illinois Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission launches an ambitious program, led by two Cook County judges, to reduce language barriers to court access.
Ever since the Illinois Supreme Court established its Access to Justice Commission in June of 2012, language barriers have been a key component of the commission's efforts to open courthouse doors to litigants without adequate legal representation.
The commission's Language Access Committee, co-chaired by Cook County Circuit Judges Grace G. Dickler and Laura C. Liu, has been studying the challenges faced by litigants who do not speak English and has formulated a Cook County-based template program for language-barrier remedies that can be tailored to meet the specific needs of judicial circuits around the state.
Liu said her committee has been working together with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans to address the needs of "limited English proficiency" people, or LEPs, and particularly to seek answers for questions like: "What do LEP persons need in order to have full access to the courts? Where are those services needed the most? How can we get funding? What are the short-term solutions, and how do we deal with this on a long-term and permanent basis?"
They have settled on short-term and long-term plans in Cook County, and Liu said those plans are a good starting point for helping alleviate these barriers throughout all Illinois courts. "The template we've created in Cook County will be sent to all the other circuits and they can fill in the blanks based on their local demand for the services and the resources they have to work with," Liu said.
Phone-based interpreters, foreign-language-speaking volunteers
This September, the Circuit Court of Cook County began installing telephone-based language interpretation services in the Daley Center, its main courthouse, as part of its Court Access Initiative. Liu said that public-information kiosks on the north and south sides of the Daley Center's first floor are now staffed by volunteers from an organization called Illinois JusticeCorps.
Those volunteers will assist LEP persons with the phone-based service so they can talk with an interpreter about issues like navigating the courthouse, filing documents with the clerk, and the basis of the litigation in which they are involved.
This interpreter service is provided by a company called Language Line Solutions, which Evans said in a written statement was selected through an open bidding process.
A non-English speaking litigant now can enter the Daley Center and easily find one of the two kiosks on the first floor. If the JusticeCorps volunteer on duty at the time does not speak the same language, then the volunteer will instigate a three-way telephone call to the interpreter hotline.
"They wait on the line for about a minute, or maybe less, for someone from Language Line to help identify the language the LEP person speaks, then there will be an interpreter on the line who will be able to communicate," Liu said. "The JusticeCorps person will also be on the phone so they can hear what's going on and can understand what the LEP person needs and how to help provide that information."
Multilingual signs, Google-based translation
In addition to this phone-based interpreter service, Liu said the courthouse will post signs throughout the building that are translated into Spanish, Polish, and perhaps a third language like Korean or Chinese.
"The signs will be used to help direct people to where they need to go in the courthouse," Liu said. "Many people on the first floor [of the Daley Center] don't know that the clerk's office is located on the sixth and eighth floors," and it can be quite difficult to figure that out for a person who does not understand English.
The court has also added Google-based translation services to the court's website, which now can be instantly translated into 71 different languages with the click of a button, Liu said. She noted that the service is available only on the court's website, not the circuit clerk's site, but she thinks Google's program (or ones like it) will catch on soon enough in the clerk's office and for court websites throughout the state. "It's the only site I'm aware of where people can get information about the circuit court that has this translation capability, and it's really helpful," Liu said.
The next step in the process, Liu said, is to streamline the procedures for obtaining interpreter services in the courtroom by providing additional training for courthouse officials and personnel.
"You have to educate both the bench and the bar....The interpreters are not in each courtroom all the time, so the judge and courtroom staff need to know how to order one," Liu said. "We have implemented language-access issues as part of new-judges school again this year, and it's being incorporated into the judges' continuing education programs."
"We think the ultimate gatekeeper is the judge," Liu said. "In the end, when the litigant or witness is in front of [a judge, the judge is] the only one who can insure they have meaningful access to justice - and that's the key term: 'meaningful access.'"