UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner, Chair
When the police responded to a domestic violence call at Layla’s house, they took Layla and her children to a women’s shelter. She’d attempted to leave several times before, but each time her husband would force her back home. Layla had tried to “keep the peace” for years, to no avail. She’d endured the physical and verbal abuse from her husband for so long that she’d attempted suicide more than once. Her children, ages 8, 6, and 4, witnessed and were victims of the violence time and time again. Once she was in the shelter, volunteers helped Layla find a temporary residence in a neighboring city.
A Texas resident for several years, Layla spoke English but wasn’t proficient enough to convey or understand some of the complex legal terms she knew would be involved if she tried to get legal help. She would need an interpreter. With assistance from the women’s shelter staff and a local community program, Layla gathered enough courage to reach out to legal aid.
Sadly, Layla’s situation is not uncommon. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2016 American Community Survey, more than 21 percent of US residents speak a language other than English at home. In Texas, nearly 36 percent of its residents speak a language other than English and 83 percent of those residents speak Spanish. Surprisingly, that number hasn’t changed significantly in more than a decade. As identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the top five non-English languages in Texas are: Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Access to justice must be extended to all people, and if we are going to close the gap in any meaningful way, we must address the challenge of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Should Layla be forced to stay in an abusive and possible deadly situation because she cannot navigate the judicial system given her limited English proficiency? No -- that would be a disgrace to humanity and to the just and fair system our democracy professes to represent.
State courts across the nation are developing language access plans that remedy language barriers by providing interpreters in courts at no charge – as is required by the Department of Justice but not often done – as well as online forms, videos, and information in Spanish and other languages, with a particular focus in the area of domestic violence. At the request of the Texas Supreme Court, the Commission will be developing a sample language access plan for use by Texas courts. We will be working with limited English proficiency (LEP) court users, judges, clerks, interpreters and other stakeholders to reduce language barriers and increase the ability of LEP individuals to communicate meaningfully with judges and lawyers and understand any legal proceedings in which they are involved.
Layla’s interpreter helped her understand the two temporary orders hearings needed in her case – a second was required because her husband would use visitation with the children as an opportunity to verbally and physically lash out at Layla. More importantly, assistance from an interpreter made it possible for Layla to break free from a horrifically abusive relationship and ultimately divorce her husband. Layla’s interpreter bridged the language divide to provide the access to justice – and safety and freedom – she so desperately needed.
Harry M. Reasoner is the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas. His principal area of practice is complex civil litigation, including antitrust and securities litigation. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers, and the American Bar Foundation.