A recent excellent New York Times article by Fernanda Santos about how the push to provide interpreters is putting strain on court budgets, and forcing delay or reduction of other expenditures, highlights the long term costs of state inattention to language access and also raises the question of how to avoid conflict between ensuring the protection of language access rights and general access rights.
The first and perhaps most important point is that in an ultimate sense there is no conflict. If someone who needs an interpreter does not get one, then all the other expenditures are wasted, because no amount of resources spend on other access tools can compensate for the lack of understanding and opportunity to contribute.
The second point is that in statistical terms the language access crisis overlaps very heavily with the self-represented challenge. While we do not yet have the numbers, there can be no argument, given poverty statistics, that LEP folks are far more frequently self-represented than the general population, and it is therefore a huge and still largely unrecognized mistake to see them as different problems, or, as often happens,to have a minor discussion of self-represented litigants in the context of a far larger and broader discussion of interpreters.
In fact, I suspect that the “typical” LEP litigant in civil cases is self-represented, and that is the way the analysis should start, with a separate and less urgent discussion about what to do when the litigant has a lawyer, who can presumably be relied upon to protect the client’s language access rights.
Thirdly, we usually fail to understand that providing broader access services can reduce the total costs of interpreter services. This can be done by providing up-front multilingual services, by using the triage process to identify language access needs, and by providing case management services that can reduce court time.
I would urge that we really need those statistics. The NCSC standards for counting self-represented cases should provid at least a start. If states are also counting language access needs, then a cluster diagram plotting SRL stats versus language access needs, court by court, and state by state would provide compelling statistics.