Language justice goes beyond language access, providing true equity for people who have limited English proficiency.
Although language access — that is, enacting policies that ensure an individual’s access to important communications in their preferred language — is an important component of providing legal services to individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP), it’s just a starting point. Organizations must also center language justice in order to truly provide equitable services.
Though they’re highly related topics, language justice takes things up a notch, promoting linguistic diversity and emphasizing an individual’s inherent right to access services in their own language. The American Bar Association defines language justice as “an evolving framework based on the notion of respecting every individual’s fundamental language rights—to be able to communicate, understand, and be understood in the language in which they prefer and feel most articulate and powerful.”
Although language access attempts to work around language barriers, language justice attempts to break these barriers, allowing people to seamlessly communicate in their own language. While language access is a good starting point, language justice goes a step further by guaranteeing equity for people who have limited English proficiency. In the field of legal services, that means ensuring individuals with LEP are aware of their rights to a certified court interpreter and other relevant language services, without imposing English upon them.
Nearly 10% of the country — that is, 26 million people — has LEP, making it critical that providers of legal services have a plan in place to practice language justice. Indeed, the National Center for State Courts has acknowledged the importance of advertising court services to residents in multiple languages, to ensure that individuals with LEP are aware of their right to access those services. Providers of legal services and state justice departments can and should take several actionable steps to move toward a framework of language justice.
In order to push themselves past language access and into the realm of language justice, organizations and agencies working in the legal field can adopt the following practices — if you don’t have time to go through everything in-depth, we’ve summed it all at the bottom of this page.
Develop a language justice plan
It might sound like a no-brainer, but one of the key steps in achieving language justice is developing a practical written plan.
Under Executive Order 13166, federal agencies must have a language access plan in place already. But by developing a separate language justice plan in addition to an already existing plan for language access, organizations go above and beyond what’s required by federal law, truly demonstrating a commitment to supporting linguistic diversity.
This plan should consist of actionable steps to enable your organization to achieve language justice. This plan should also be informed by local data — different cities and zip codes have different linguistic demographics that need to be taken into account in any effective language justice plan.
It’s also important to stay accountable — appointing a language coordinator or working group is a good first step to ensuring that members of an organization uphold the key steps and tenets of the language justice plan. It’s also a good idea to update the plan on a yearly basis, as a sort of yearly check-in to gauge progress toward fulfilling language justice and also identify any obstacles in the process of implementing the plan effectively.
Here are just a few of the steps that legal organizations and agencies should include in their plan to bring your language access plan up a notch and emphasize language justice.
Prioritize hiring bilingual staff
By having staff members who are fluent in multiple languages, legal organizations and agencies can better serve clients who speak languages other than the dominant language.
Additionally, individuals who are familiar with another language are also likely to have strong cultural knowledge of the community that speaks that language. This cultural competence can improve communication between staff members and clients, which may ultimately lead to better understanding and more effective representation.
Integrate linguistic inclusivity into outreach strategy
This is important because it ensures that all members of the community have access to information about the services offered by the organization or agency. Adopting a new outreach strategy that emphasizes language inclusion may seem daunting but working with a trusted language service provider can help smooth things over.
Key aspects of a linguistically inclusive outreach strategy include translated informational materials, multilingual hotlines, as well as advertising and community meetings tailored to specific language communities. By proactively reaching out to different language communities, legal organizations and agencies can increase accessibility and promote equitable access to justice for communities with low levels of English proficiency.
Conduct language justice training sessions for all staff
Training your staff on the importance of language justice is a crucial part of ensuring that an organization is not only committed to providing language justice, but also to actively promoting it.
This can include presentations on cultural competency, and best practices for working with clients from diverse language backgrounds. Holding these training sessions can provide staff members with the tools and information that they might need to effectively and respectfully communicate with and represent clients.
Offer remote interpreting services to clients
It might not be feasible or even possible to hire a full-time interpreter for your organization. But at the same time, you may find that you need one on relatively short notice — having a working relationship with a provider of remote interpreting services is a good way to ensure that you’re able to provide for new clients who might need an interpreter.
Remote interpreting allows for real-time translation during legal proceedings and consultations, which can improve understanding and communication between clients and staff. This can also promote equal access to justice for clients who do not speak the dominant language. Encouraging staff to use remote interpreting services can ensure that all clients have access to the same level of service, regardless of their language background.
- Language justice takes language access one step further, emphasizing an individual’s right to communicate in the language they feel most comfortable and articulate in.
- Legal organizations and agencies should develop a language justice plan and hold themselves accountable to it.
- Some key aspects of a strong language justice plan include the following:
- Hire bilingual staff
- Emphasize linguistic inclusivity in outreach
- Conduct regular trainings on language justice with staff
- Offer remote interpreting services to clientele
Avantpage is committed to language justice — we also have a noted track record of working with legal organizations and government agencies to help individuals with LEP access critical services. If your organization is looking to develop or implement a language justice plan, we’re here to help — contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.