Increasing Language Access in the Courts: Implications for LEP Survivors

The Increasing Language Access toolkit examines advocates’ observations about the court experiences of survivors with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), and offers guidance and resources to build systems change efforts for language accessibility.

This toolkit is designed to guide and inform advocates working with survivors with limited English proficiency (LEP) who are involved in civil legal proceedings. The following information reflects pages 11 and 12 of the toolkit.

Implications for Survivors with LEP

Participants described how the lack of quality, systems-based language access services leads to exclusion, heightened risks, and negative outcomes for survivors with LEP.


Denial of language access services results in denial of the full complement of S/DV services and supports to survivors with LEP:

“We worked with two survivors of human trafficking who spoke only Spanish. The affidavits they made to law enforcement were never translated and their case was not prosecuted. There was no interpreter supplied by law enforcement for them, only a friend who came with them who was not a strong Spanish speaker.”

Standards of quality, confidentiality, and ethics for language access services are equally as important as the availability of services. The lack of or failure to adhere to these standards can be minimized or exploited in court:

“[…] interpreter at court was a relative of abuser. The interpreter […] not only translate[d] victim’s testimony incorrectly but also intimidate[d] victim when she translate[d] judge’s questions to victim.”

The use of family, friends, advocates, or other untrained persons as interpreters will also compromise the quality, confidentiality, and ethical standard of S/DV systems’ language accessibility. The use of family or friends holds unique challenges and risks to survivors:

“A survivor was raped by partner and officer called to the scene did not speak client’s language. Survivor’s teenage daughter was asked to interpret and victim decided to leave out information because of daughter being asked to [interpret]. The report did not depict the real incident for further criminal legal proceedings.”

In some cases, the abuser or family/friends of the abuser are asked by the S/DV response systems to serve as interpreters, which also places survivors with LEP at risk of new forms of abuse:

“[…] Law enforcement officer requested Spanish-speaking family member to interpret. Family was pro abuser’s side and was interpreting for abuser’s convenience. Advocates had to call 911, to get […] Sheriff deputy on the scene to

inform them not to use family member as interpreter. Instead asked if we could interpret what the victim needed. Deputy did not allow this. Victim lost the trust she had gained with law enforcement and does not wish to involve them further […]”

Even when abusers are not asked to serve as interpreters, if they speak English and the survivor has LEP, it is often the abuser’s statement that becomes the systems’ record:

“One of our clients called the police. She asked for an interpreter and was never given one. The officers ended up listening primarily to the abuser since he spoke English better. The report was written to make it seem like she was at fault even though there was no arrest. Due to lack of interpreter and proper investigation, the officers never asked if she was injured […].”

Heightened risk

Without language accessible services and supports, survivors with LEP are at much higher risk of continued or increased danger:

“[Deisy] García completed police reports in Spanish. These were never translated and were not acted upon. She and her daughters were killed by [the] abuser.”

Survivors with LEP are also at heightened risk of loss or compromise of their parental rights, and their children are at risk of continued or increased danger:

“A mother lost custody of her two young daughters to an abusive father after the judge concluded that the mother had lied in court. The mother was asked a question in court, but her understanding of the question was distorted and

she gave an answer that was not compatible […]. Based on this one answer the mother’s credibility was questioned and a decision was made to keep the children with the father. […] There is overwhelming evidence that this mother is

a [domestic violence] survivor and her 6-year-old daughter was sexually abused by the father.”

Negative outcomes

As referenced above, a lack of language accessible services and supports can also, paradoxically, lead to negative systems involvement and render survivors with LEP perpetually unserved or grossly underserved, even as they engage with or try to access S/DV systems:

“[…] she hit him in the face in order to protect herself. Physically the victim had been visibly beaten while the aggressor had a split lip. No interpreters were provided and the officers decided to arrest both parties. In court, both parties were accused of aggravated assault, yet again, interpreters were not provided. The children were placed in temporary custody. Due to the charge, the victim was also placed under investigation for child endangerment. The victim could not access shelter services, since according to the charges, she was the aggressor.”

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