Breaking Through Barriers: Language Access for Crime Victims

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Indiana Court Times on 04/01/2019 by Lisa Manning and Lun Pieper

As our population continues to diversify, judges encounter an increased demand to provide language access in criminal court proceedings. Although the obligation to provide court interpretation for defendants may be readily apparent, the court’s duty can get murky when a victim requires language access. The obligation becomes less clear when the victim is merely observing and not testifying in the proceedings.

Testifying witnesses

If a crime victim wishes to testify and is Limited English Proficient (LEP), deaf, or hard of hearing, the court should provide accommodation at all stages of the case where victim testimony is permitted. A certified interpreter for the victim not only ensures the trier of fact hears all the probative evidence presented, but also allows the victim to meaningfully participate in the proceedings.

Non-testifying witnesses

What about a victim who has completed testimony and wishes to continue observing the trial, or a victim who is not a witness at the proceedings? If the court has notice that an observing victim communicates with ASL (American Sign Language), the court should provide an interpreter.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires courts to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services, such as an ASL interpreter, where necessary to allow individuals with disabilities “to participate in and enjoy” the proceedings.

While LEP individuals are not covered under the ADA, the court should accommodate crime victims that require interpretation. Indiana Code 35-40 allocates several rights to crime victims, including the right to be heard at sentencing and the right to be informed of the status of a criminal case.

On July 1, 2018, the Indiana legislature expanded these rights to include the right to a free transcript of the trial when a defendant appeals his conviction. Though these rights do not give rise to a claim for damages or relief in the criminal case, it is the best practice to reasonably accommodate a crime victim in need of language access.

Available resources

If you have a victim that requires court interpretation during criminal proceedings, the Indiana Office of Court Services can help.

Information about available interpreter grants and a list of certified interpreters is available online. For a copy of the bench card “Tips for Working with Interpreters” or for questions about interpreters, contact Lun Pieper at lun.pieper@courts.in.gov.