Language access is a civil right. I first learned about this last spring semester, when I worked for the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP), on the language access rights project. Language-assistance to limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals is an important measure of how civil rights requirements are met. Under Title VI of Civil Rights Act of 1964, “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The right to language access protects people from being discriminated against based on their national origin.
Striving to uphold these rights, at VLP I joined other HLS students to examine the language accessibility of a clerk’s office of a Massachusetts Family and Probate Court. As part of my work, I visited the court to conduct on-site investigation and interviews. I looked at the signs and services from a LEP individual’s perspective. For instance, I tried to follow the signs for where to file a complaint and where to find a courtroom for a hearing. Additionally, I looked at the available multilingual material distributed in the courthouse and on the court’s website.
Along with my teammates, I also talked to an attorney, two clerks, and a Chinese court interpreter. The purpose of these discussions was to learn more about the court’s language resources, the needs of the court and its visitors, and the court efforts to help LEP individuals. Following the visit, we drafted a report based on the information gathered through our observations and interviews. VLP could use the report as a tool for helping the courts improve language access.
Other projects I had a chance to work on included designing the ‘Know your language access rights’ fliers, which could be used to assist low income tenants in disputing issues with their landlords, either through mediation or litigation at the Boston Housing Court. I also took the opportunity to observe hearings at the Boston Housing Court, where interpreters were involved.
If it were not for the efforts and advocacy from organizations like VLP, language access rights would likely go ignored. It felt wonderful to know that as students and lawyers we can use our expertise to fight for these rights and increase awareness of this issue.