How Access to Language Services is Vital to Closing the Justice Gap
by Ramona Morel, Esq. and Alexa Tovar May 18, 2021
Ramona Morel is the director for the Consumer Bankruptcy Project. Alexa Tovar is the coordinator for the Consumer Bankruptcy, Elderlaw, and Cancer Advocacy Projects.
Navigating the civil legal process and understanding court procedures, such as filing for bankruptcy relief, can be difficult for individuals who do not have legal assistance or representation. For those who do not speak English or have limited English proficiency, accessing legal services in their native language can be even more challenging.
New York City is home to one of the most diverse populations in the world. The city has become a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, springing hundreds of dialects and languages spoken across the five boroughs. According to the Department of City Planning, nearly one-half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home and almost 25% are not proficient in English. Approximately 16% of clients served by the City Bar Justice Center’s Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP) have limited English proficiency or are non-English speaking and need pro bono legal services provided in their native language.
CBP has taken steps to ensure that its clients are afforded access to language services. CBP recruits, trains, and mentors non-bankruptcy lawyers who participate in its pro bono programming. This provides attorneys of different legal backgrounds, and especially those who speak other languages, the unique opportunity to use their legal and languages skills to get involved. CBP has also created volunteer opportunities allowing non-attorneys and other professionals at law firms and legal departments, and who speak other languages, to provide translation services to its clients. This method proved to be successful at a recent remote bankruptcy clinic, where MetLife recruited non-attorneys and other professionals fluent in Spanish to get involved in pro bono work by serving as interpreters. The MetLife interpreting team partnered with MetLife pro bono attorneys at the clinic where they provided legal assistance and advice to Spanish-speaking consumers seeking help with bankruptcy relief.
Having access to language services, such as having access to an interpreter or developing resources in languages other than English, is beneficial to both clients seeking legal help and the volunteer attorneys providing assistance. For CBP clients, it means having a thorough understanding of their legal rights and options under bankruptcy law.
As the City Bar Justice remains operating remotely, CBP is actively seeking ways to be increasingly accessible to all New Yorkers – especially those who face disproportionate barriers that are preventing them from obtaining essential legal services and resources they need. Together, with the support of pro bono partners, CBP will work towards bridging the justice gap for clients facing barriers due to the scarcity of resources available in languages other than English. Access to language services provides a space for clients to feel comfortable enough to express themselves and effectively communicate with their attorneys and supporting staff. Moreover, ensuring that clients with limited English proficiency or who do not speak English receive assistance in their native language is an example of providing zealous and competent advocacy effectively tailored to specific client needs.
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