HARRISBURG -The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU) praised the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) today for issuing a long-awaited “Language Access Plan” but cautioned that much work needs to be completed to satisfy federal anti-discrimination law and the ACLU’s complaints, filed in 2013 with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).   

“Dispensing justice fairly and accurately is a bedrock of our judiciary, but that cannot happen unless people involved in the process can communicate with each other,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Without language access, people with limited English proficiency are vulnerable to life-altering situations, including domestic violence, eviction from their homes, and other challenging circumstances.”  

 “Today’s plan will bring Pennsylvania courts closer to compliance with the law, which requires courts to provide language services that ensure limited English proficient persons can participate fully in all proceedings.”  

In February 2013, the ACLU filed a complaint, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the DOJ. The complaint concerned the failure by a Bucks County magisterial district judge to provide any translated court documents or in-court interpreters to two limited English proficient (LEP) men who attempted to file a lawsuit alleging that their employer had refused to pay them. Efforts to compel the Bucks County judge, the County’s judicial administration, or the AOPC to ensure legally required language access were rejected. The AOPC sent a letter indicating that it would not force courts to provide interpreters in non-family-law civil matters. 

The complaint to DOJ followed and noted that failure to provide mandated language access was a problem in courts across the commonwealth. 

In May 2013, the ACLU filed a second complaint with DOJ involving an LEP woman in Berks County who was denied language services in trying to defend against a lawsuit filed by the Reading Housing Authority seeking her eviction. Like the Bucks County men, the tenant was forced to go through the proceedings without a court interpreter, understanding virtually nothing that transpired. Unsurprisingly, she signed a form that she believed fixed the problem but turned out to be an agreement to vacate the property.  Legal services lawyers subsequently filed emergency papers to prevent the eviction.

A 2015 report by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple Law School found ongoing problems with commonwealth courts not providing language access services and made important recommendations for reform.  

Witold Walczak, the ACLU of PA’s legal director and the lawyer who filed the DOJ complaints, praised the AOPC’s development of a plan but cautioned that the “to-do list” in the plan is long and many important details remain unresolved.  

”The plan is well done, but much important work remains, including translation of key court forms, documents, and directional and instructional signage in courthouse and court websites, and figuring out exactly how magistrate district judges and their staffs can advise LEP litigants about their right to language access services in a timely and effective way,” said Walczak. “As with so many things, the devil is in the details, and the time line for figuring out many of those details is measured in years.”  

The ACLU’s DOJ complaints against AOPC remain outstanding. Walczak said that he hopes the AOPC will quickly finalize the proceedings in the way that other states have done, like Maine, Rhode Island, and Colorado.  In those cases, which began with complaints like the ones filed by the ACLU here, the state courts signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) with DOJ setting forth the changes that would fix the language access problems, including the implementation of timetables and a system of independent and transparent compliance monitoring.  

“It is important that AOPC’s plan for coming into compliance with federal language access requirements is subject to independent, external, and transparent monitoring,” Walczak said. “The ACLU remains available to help Pennsylvania’s courts ensure that LEP litigants can fully access the justice system.”