Ensuring Language Access in Illinois’ Courts

AOICEnsuring equal access to the courts for individuals with language limitations is a top priority in Illinois, where there is a growing number of people with limited English proficiency.

As part of its charge to support access to justice in the state, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts’ (AOIC) Commission on Access to Justice has launched several initiatives focused on helping trial courts ensure language access in Illinois courtrooms.

We spoke to Sophia Akbar, Senior Program Manager, Language Access in the AOIC’s Access to Justice Division, about the importance of language access, how her efforts have been impacted by the pandemic, and how the AOIC is working to ensure language access in remote hearings.

The Commission on Access to Justice recently announced that several circuit court forms had been translated into Spanish. Can you tell us about this?

The Commission on Access to Justice has been translating forms into Spanish and other languages since 2015. The translated forms are meant to assist people with limited English proficiency who are representing themselves in court or are receiving legal assistance in a limited scope.

Several translated forms were removed due to e-filing updates, and those were recently made available again, in addition to new translated forms. These include answer/response, appearance, mortgage foreclosure, eviction, and financial affidavit forms, among others.

The U.S. Department of Justice requires that translated materials be made available in state courts for limited English proficient populations of 1,000 people or more in every state. In Illinois, we typically translate forms into our top six languages, which include Spanish, Polish, Korean, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic.

Before the e-filing update, all of our forms were translated into our top six languages. Due to language access data and budgetary reasons, we are currently prioritizing Spanish translations. Data show that 95% of language needs in the court are for Spanish.

How are the forms translated?  

We use an outside vendor called Transcend Translations. They also translate court forms for California and other states. We prefer to use an experienced vendor because they are able to maintain the formatting of our forms while ensuring accurate legal translation by a certified translator.

The forms review process is pretty constant. Twice a year we audit our translated forms to determine if portions need to be updated to reflect updates to the English language versions.

Does the Commission on Access to Justice plan to translate all of its forms into Spanish?

We have prioritized translation for forms that are used most often by self-represented litigants. Currently, certain forms are going through a review process, such as the order of protection and divorce forms. Once that review is complete, we will get those translated.

Since the forms are submitted in English, it is unknown which translated forms are being used the most. We are also open to changing the format of our forms to interlinear translation if proven more effective, which is currently being researched by Harvard’s Access to Justice Lab.

We are tracking research and best practices across the U.S. and prioritizing Spanish translations given the need. However, we will make changes as needs evolve.

How do translated forms help attorneys and courthouse personnel?

Translated forms provide attorneys with a resource that gives clients procedural guidance and easy to follow instructions in plain language.

We have received feedback that the forms have been extremely helpful, especially amongst the legal aid community, since there are times they are only able to provide phone advice due to limited staff and they can direct people to the forms.

The forms are also helpful for court staff and judges in their interactions with self-represented litigants.

The forms must be filed in English, correct?

Yes. Illinois law requires that all documents be filed in English. This is true for almost all state courts.

There are instances when documents are filed in languages other than English. At the appellate or supreme court level, our office translates the documents. If they are filed at the circuit court level, they can only be accepted if they are accompanied by a certified translation.

How has the pandemic impacted the AOIC’s language access initiative?

We have pivoted our focus to assisting courts in utilizing remote interpreting over phone or video. We had pilot programs running in several counties to increase access to certified interpreters across the state and country, but progress had stagnated. The current situation has required courts to prioritize remote access in a way that provides a unique opportunity.

The program involves training judges and court staff on the importance of using certified interpreters, even if only available remotely, and connecting them with relevant resources. Courts currently have access to a telephonic service called Language Line, but it is not adequate for facilitating communications in the courtroom.

Prior to the pandemic, we had launched a statewide strategic planning initiative on language access. However, as this requires many in-person meetings, it has been placed on hold for now. We have also had to postpone oral exam testing for interpreters seeking certification, but have been holding online skills-building trainings in the meantime.

Has the AOIC seen a drop in case filings since the pandemic began?

Yes. Civil case filings in Illinois were down by 60% from April 2019 to April 2020. Many factors can explain why filings in most case types are down, such as loss of income, fear of having to take public transportation or of going to a public place to conduct court business, and entities or individuals simply not pursuing cases they might otherwise pursue, such as small claims and evictions.

With e-filing, part of the process can be done remotely – but not all of it since remote appearances are not widely available across the state.

Is there other evidence of individuals not pursuing cases at this time?

We have been in contact with Illinois Legal Aid Online, which has seen a dramatic drop in the usage of their online “easy forms” during this same time period for all forms except orders of protection. This could be explained by the fact that shelter-in-place orders may be dangerous for victims of domestic violence, and victims are seeking assistance despite the risks posed by the pandemic.

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