Progress on Language Access in Utah

Brennan Center Applauds Utah Courts’ Proposal to Expand Access to Court Interpreters, Urges the State to Stop Charging for Interpreters

The Utah Supreme Court is considering whether to expand its court interpreter program to cover all civil matters, in order to comply with federal law. Currently, court interpreters are available only in criminal cases and a limited number of civil ones. They are not provided, for instance, in cases in which people are facing the loss of child custody to another family member, eviction from their homes, or the ability to recover wages owed to them. The changes proposed late last year by Utah’s Judicial Council would fix that.

This is an important step in a state in which 12.5% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Without adequate court interpretation, witnesses and other court participants cannot convey crucial information to the courts. People turning to the court to protect their rights cannot understand the proceedings in their own cases. Judges cannot communicate the terms of court orders to the people who must obey those orders. As the Judicial Council’s reportwarns, “not just the person of limited English proficiency, but also the court has an interest in the quality of interpretation and in expediting the proceedings.”

Not only are the proposed changes good policy, but they are necessary to move the state towards compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act, which requires recipients of federal funding to ensure that the services they provide are available to people with limited proficiency in English. Last August, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez warned the high courts of all fifty states that if they deny access to interpreters in civil matters they run the risk that the Justice Department will come after them. As the Judicial Council acknowledged, a recent Brennan Center reporthas identified Utah as being among the many states that fail to provide interpreters in important civil cases.

Unfortunately, even with the proposed changes Utah will still violate the Civil Rights Act, because the state will continue charging some limited English proficient individuals for their interpreters. According to the Assistant Attorney General's letter, the effect of such charges is "either to subject some individuals to a surcharge based upon a party's or witness' English language proficiency, or to discourage parties from requesting or using a competent interpreter."

The Utah Judicial Council’s report disagrees with the Justice Department, claiming that the Civil Rights Act allows the states to charge limited English proficient individuals for their interpreters. The Brennan Center has written to the Supreme Court, reminding it that Utah and other states routinely provide sign language interpreters free of charge. Many states started providing sign language interpreters for free because Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act required them to do so, and the courts have repeatedly upheld that interpretation of Section 504. Because Section 504 was itself based on the Civil Rights Act, there is every reason to believe that the Civil Rights Act, too, bars courts from charging for interpreters.