Language Access & Cultural Sensitivity

Legal aid organizations should strive to offer services in a culturally competent manner to those who come from diverse cultures in the service area. This includes, to the extent possible, having staff who are bilingual in the most frequently spoken languages other than English.

A good limited English proficiency plan should lay out the procedures for assisting those who speak other languages and ensure sufficient resources to support adequate interpretation and translation services. Program Letter 04-2 provides context and guidance to ensure access to justice for communities of potentially eligible clients who do not speak English proficiently.

As of 2013, more than 20 percent of individuals living in the United States speak a language other than English in their home. Close to 25 million people, about 8 percent of the population, has limited English proficiency.

In addition to knowing those states and regions with the highest populations of people with limited English proficiency, it is important to recognize those states and regions with the most growth. Legal aid organizations need to develop capacity to deliver quality legal services to this growing population.

Language Data

National Data Sources

LEP.gov, a federal interagency website, has an interactive mapping tool that can help your organization find the concentration of and the languages spoken by individuals who have limited English proficiency in a community. By clicking on your state or county, you can identify the number or percentage of people with limited English proficiency, download language data, or visually display language maps for presentations.

The U.S. Census Bureau remains the primary source for language data.

  • The American Community Survey is the primary source of data about language use. It is an ongoing survey that provides data from a sample of the population in the United States and Puerto Rico.
  • The Census Bureau Language Mapper displays language data from the American Community Survey in an interactive map, which shows the concentration of limited English proficient individuals.
  • The American Fact Finder provides access to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. It also provides information on housing, economics, governments, and employment.

Additional national data is available from:

Local Data Sources

The data gathered by national organizations may lack the detail that local organizations can provide for your service area. Several types of organizations commonly collect language data, which can supplement data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

  • Regional Census offices, where Census employees are available to assist in accessing data and determining which sets are the most helpful. The U.S. Census Bureau provides contact information for each regional census office.
  • School districts track the language needs of the students and families that they serve.
  • Public benefits offices may vary between states, but asking local offices about language needs that they encounter can help tailor statewide numbers to a given geographic region.
  • Court interpreter services can provide information about requests and additional insight into specific jurisdictions.

Planning and Evaluation

To ensure that clients have meaningful access to your organization's services, it is essential to evaluate language access services and develop a comprehensive limited English proficiency plan.

At a minimum, a limited English proficiency plan should address the procedures in place for:

  • Assessing client language needs
  • Identifying staff language capacity
  • Training attorneys, staff, and volunteers who interact with clients
  • Using interpreters
  • Translating client letters, legal information, or legal document instructions
  • Serving clients with limited English proficiency through outreach
  • Continuing to evaluate language access policies and procedures

Language Access Procedure Manual & Implementation Plan

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles' Language Access Procedure Manual has practical instructions for staff that work with clients and includes step-by-step processes for walk-ins, call-ins, and verbal and written communications.

The Legal Services of Northern California's Language Access Plan, which was created in 2005 when it conducted a comprehensive survey of language capacity and revised in 2016, is an overview of the organization's efforts to serve clients with limited English proficiency. According to the plan, "This revision takes into account the accomplishments of that plan and details the ongoing language access efforts of the organization to provide equal access to LSNC's services to all applicants and clients regardless of English proficiency."

Policy & Procedures on Providing Legal Services to Limited English Proficient Clients

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles developed procedures for a periodic assessment of language needs, intake and services, translation, training, and policy review. Emphasis is on the intake process with distinct procedures for walk-ins and phone calls. The manual provides specific guidance on preferred methods for interpreting, which addresses the use of client family members, staff, and paid services.

Language Access Policy

Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County established a language access policy that provides specific processes for intake, case handling, interpreters, and documenting language needs. Procedures are organized in a step-by-step format, which guides staff through the intake process when helping clients with limited English proficiency.

To ensure that staff can easily reference policies that are applicable to their responsibilities. Neighborhood Legal Services also created quick reference sheets for main staff as well as for self-help and clinic staff.

Language Access Self-Assessment

The U.S. Department of Justice has several assessment and planning tools on LEP.gov. Additional information, including language plans for other federal agencies, is available on the U.S. Department of Justice website.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia developed a language access checklist for agencies and organizations in order to help them determine whether their policies, practices, and staff trainings are up to date and reflective of language accessible legal aid practice.

Language Assistance

When a full range of oral, written, and digital services are available to those who have limited English proficiency, it provides meaningful access to a legal aid organization's services and programs.

The first step is ensuring that low-income people in your area are aware that your organization offers services in a language other than English. The U.S. Census Bureau uses a checklist that allows potential clients to identify their language in a list of 38 languages by checking: "Mark this box if you read or speak [language]."

Culture Connect maintains "I Speak" cards in 30 languages. The cards include a notation of the language the client speaks as well as a description of the interpreting services they are entitled to by law in both English and their chosen language.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, with the help of a professional language translation service, created an editable poster to notify clients of their right to an interpreter. The English text states: "You have the right to an interpreter at no cost to you. Please point to your language. An interpreter will be called. Please wait."

The text is translated into 34 languages with room for additional languages. Viewing and editing the poster requires downloading all the relevant fonts, which are available on the Massachusetts Law Reform website with the vertical and horizontal versions of the poster.

Oral & Interpretation Services

Legal aid organizations should strive to assess staff language proficiency. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles uses a four-part assessment that was developed and administered by certified court interpreters to accomplish this. Staff receive a pay supplement according to their level of language proficiency.

Staff at level 1 have the language skills necessary for intake procedures. Staff with level 2 language skills have the advanced skills necessary to translate complicated documents and provide interpreter services at depositions and in court.

The assessment follows the following format:

Oral Level 1

Oral Level 2

Written Level 1

Written Level 2

Staff member interprets 15 simple sentences common to legal aid. For example: "I could not pay the rent because I did not have the money."

Part A - Staff member is tested on a list of vocabulary words. The tester says the word, and the staff member interprets it.

Part B - Staff member interprets an entire conversation between an attorney and a client. For example, the attorney asks questions in English, which the staff member must interpret into Spanish. The client answers in Spanish, which the staff member must interpret into English.

Staff member translates 15 simple sentences common to legal aid. Staff member must translate a complex document, about one page in length, like a retainer agreement or settlement agreement.


Community Legal Services of Philadelphia maintains a directory that lists all staff who identify as having a second language. Staff in the directory rate their own proficiency on a scale from minimal to fluent based on a rubric that establishes criteria for each language skill level.

Planning an Interpreter Directory

In an effort to improve language access in Washington state, the NorthWest Justice Project collaborated with the Washington State Coalition for Language Access to build an interpreter and translator database for professionals in education, legal, medical, and social service settings. The project was funded by a Technology Initiative Grant.

Interpreters and translators create their own profiles in the directory, which service providers can search to find spoken language interpreters, American Sign Language interpreters, and translators.

By partnering with ProBono.net, the directory can be replicated by other legal aid organizations that are part of the LawHelp system. Organizations interested in a similar project may want to ask the essential questions and view the business requirements below.

  • What is the intended scope of the directory in your state? Do you intend for the directory to be used only by legal professionals or will it include other service providers? This is relevant to the type of certifications to include and will impact your outreach.
  • What certifications are relevant in your state and practice area? Understanding the type of interpreter and translator certifications that are relevant to each area of practice is critical to creating a relevant search for providers in your state.
  • Should the directory include geographic considerations?
  • What information will providers be looking for in the search results? Knowing how providers will use the directory is an important step in determining the information that the profile will include. For example, will providers be interested in the interpreter's certifications only or will the result list also include education and other relevant background information?
  • How will the directory be maintained and what is the process for updating profiles and educational materials? Will a staff person be responsible for maintaining the directory? Or will be self-maintaining in that profiles are kept up to date by the profile holder with automatic reminders to update language and contact information built into the system?

Business requirements:

  • Timeline is a three- to six-month process
  • Technology needs may lengthen the outlined process depending on the platform the organization chooses to use. Another thing to consider is that replication timelines are dependent upon the number of changes an organization chooses to make. Consult with ProBono.net to determine the cost of replication.

Community Legal Interpreter Bank

In an effort to address the lack of trained and affordable legal interpreters in the Washington, D.C. legal aid community, Ayuda launched the Community Legal Interpreter Bank. Created through a unique partnership with the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, the interpreter bank selects a pool of experienced interpreters to train in skills needed for legal interpretation between attorneys and clients.

Interpreters are tested to ensure competence in language skills, understanding of the legal system, and adherence to ethical standards. Interpreters are then made available to legal aid providers in the District. The interpreter bank also provides telephone interpretation and translation services through contracts with third-party vendors.

Though the interpreter bank is required to address languages identified by the D.C. Language Access Act, it currently provides interpreters for more than 20 languages.

Legal aid providers also have access to training on their ethical and legal obligations to provide language access services to their clients, understanding the fields of interpretation and translation, and best practices in working with interpreters.

Translation & Online Services

Several legal aid organizations, with funding from a Technology Initiative Grant, have either offered foreign language mirror websites or translated legal information to provide help to low-income individuals with limited English proficiency.

Legal Assistance of Western New York investigated the current and possible uses of translation tools in legal aid, including fully automated machine translation and translation memory.

The report, "Can Translation Software Help Legal Services Agencies Delivery Information More Effectively in Foreign Languages and Plain English," includes:

  • An explanation of the need for language translation tools in legal aid
  • An overview of the types of foreign language translation tools available
  • Testing and evaluation of various foreign language translation methods
  • Possible applications of foreign language translation concepts and tools to plain English translation
  • Conclusions and recommendations for use of various tools

LawHelp en Español

Espanol.lawhelp.org provides access to the state website network for individuals searching for legal aid resources in Spanish. Site visitors also have an option for additional assistance through LiveHelp, a chat service with real-time assistance from trained volunteer navigators. LawHelp en Espanol also includes 10 plain language guides to common legal issues and questions. These resources are also available in Mandarin, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and English through ProBono.net's Language Access Intiative translation bank. The translation bank requires a log-in, but legal aid staff can register to access the site.

Limited English Proficiency Kits for Websites and Hotlines

Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York expanded its website and hotline to accommodate clients with limited English proficiency. The organization's technology reaches individuals from a variety of backgrounds using audio, video, and text in their native language. The website also features an Online Law Library and Language Gateway, both of which provide information in commonly encountered non-English languages, such as Spanish, Bosnian, Russian, Vietnamese, Burmese, S'Gaw Karen, Maay Maay, Arabic, and Somali.

Audio and videos provide legal information on topics such as domestic violence and Supplemental Security Income, and additional videos explain the services available to clients and a phone number to apply for legal help. When low-income individuals call the number, they are prompted to select one of the langauges listed above. Once the language is selected, either a staff member or recordings of key documents in the selected language are available. Legal Aid of Western New York used Audacity, a free recording software.

In addition to the online and phone materials listed above, online resources explain available legal help in Belarusian, Cambodian, Mandarin Chinese (traditional), Mandarin Chinese (simplified), Farsi, French, Haitian Creole, and Ukrainian.

Download text, audio, and video files for all 17 languages. This is a large 1.2 GB file, so please allow time for download.

Integrating Google Translate API with Statewide Websites

Ayuda Legal Illinois mirrors the existing statewide legal website used by LAFformerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicagoand Illinois Legal Aid Online.

To expedite translation of legal documents, Chicago legal aid used Google Translate API to integrate an automatic translation component into the website's content management system.

The initial translation from English to Spanish was performed by Google Translate API. Before the translated documents were posted to the website, a native Spanish speaker reviewed the content for grammar and style. This method reduces the time it takes for a  translator to complete a document by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Training

Another component of providing quality legal help to low-income individuals with limited English proficiency is ensuring that staff have access to professional development training to maintain adequate language skills.

Language Access Training Videos

Northwest Justice Project developed training videos for attorneys and other providers to address fundamental language access concerns.

Three training videos on the Language Access and Limited English Proficient Advocacy YouTube channel contain an overview of essential language access information:

Projects

Language Access Project

The Language Access Project, created by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, seeks to:

  • Heighten awareness of legal services among communities with limited English proficiency and the agencies that serve them
  • Provide high-quality legal representation to those with limited English proficiency
  • Address systemic problems facing limited English-speaking communities through legal advocacy and select client representation
  • Assist communities with limited English proficiency in voicing their concerns in local and national policymaking forums

Since its creation, the Language Access Project has provided local and national trainings on topics related to language access.

Low-Income Taxpayer Assistance

The Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County organizes low-income taxpayer assistance specifically designed to help the deaf and hard of hearing in the Rochester, New York area. The Project educates deaf and hard-of-hearing taxpayers about their rights and responsibilities, using a combination of in-person interpreting and text-based technology to foster communication between staff and clients.

Members of Rochester's deaf community have access to workshops as well as legal representation. Workshops address substantive tax information, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Internal Revenue Service collection processes. Project staff also provide assistance with audits, deficiency notices, stopping tax liens and levies, and innocent spouse relief.