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Connecting Justice Communities

Limited English Proficiency Complaint Resource Center: A New Tool to Help Advocates Create Title VI Language Access Complaints

Posted in Legal Services, Pro Bono, Technology

By Claudia Johnson and Katie Brement

Almost 50 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and women. The passage of the Act marked a new beginning for our society based on equality.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exists to ensure Federal departments, agencies or activities receiving Federal funds do not exclude participation or discriminate against any person in the United States on the grounds of race, gender or national origin.

Although compliance with Title VI was a requirement for all agencies receiving Federal funds since 1964, Title VI was mostly ignored by federal fund recipients until the mid to late 90s when, thanks to work by Jane Perkins of the National Health Law Program, advocates started to push to make language provisions in health care settings. And, after Sandoval v. Hagan, advocates started using Title VI complaints to protect the rights of individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) under the national origin category across all Federal funding streams, including housing, transportation, courts and so on.

As advocates became involved in language access advocacy, Federal regulations improved. Under Title VI, programs receiving Federal funding have clearer guidelines from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide oral interpretation and written translation for the 25 million linguistically isolated individuals in the U.S.—or approximately 9% of the U.S. population. These regulations trickle down to federal agencies  and focus on eliminating language barriers that make it difficult to access Federally funded programs like education, health care, public transportation, housing, courts, barriers that keep  LEP households to be 26% more likely to live in poverty than English proficient households.

An article from the New York University Review of Law & Social Change examines the past 15 years of Title VI litigation and how language access advocates can enforce laws within the administrative process and collaborate to improve services for the LEP community.

The DOJ recently released a report emphasizing the Civil Rights Division’s reinvigorated commitment to enforcement efforts on the Title VI prohibition against discrimination in federally funded programs. It also highlights how advocates’ settlements and complaints play a key role in bringing LEP access issues to the attention of the Federal branches so additional support and training can be coordinated to improve conditions and raise awareness.

Today, many legal aid programs do Title VI work as a matter of routine. An excellent example is Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, which has incorporated Title VI analysis into all of their practice areas since 1999 and has been successful in systemic advocacy on behalf of LEP communities.  Georgia Legal Services and Colorado Legal Services are other programs that have strong Title VI practices, as well as Northern California Legal Services and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles that has been coordinating the National Language Advocates Network for the past three years (http://www.probono.net).

However, not all legal aid programs or local communities have developed Title VI administrative expertise. 

To better familiarize advocates and legal aid attorneys with the Title VI complaint process and increase assistance to individuals who have been denied or delayed getting Federal services because they speak English with limited capacity, Pro Bono Net and Legal Services State Support of Minnesota collaborated on a proposal to the Skadden Foundation’s Flom Incubator Grant.  Both programs had former Skadden Fellows on staff when the project was designed.

The project pulls together a critical mass of Title VI resources on an easy-to-use website and provides an online interactive interview advocates can use to create customized, high-quality Title VI complaint forms for any federally funded program. It also produces customized release forms in various languages. The online form interview, powered by LawHelp Interactive, is designed for both attorney and non-attorney advocates. The online complaint interview and other Title VI resources are available to advocates through the LEP Complaint Resource Center and the National Language Access Advocates Network (N-LAAN) website. Both websites have a short registration and approval period before you can access resources.

Additionally, many communities in the U.S. are now organizing to raise awareness on language access issues at the local level, and laws are being passed by states and cities to ensure equal access. For example, the successes in New York and Long Beach, CA.  Legal services programs that have community lawyering practices might want to share these resources with their client groups when they are dealing with barriers due to language and national origin. We encourage both advocates with robust practices in Title VI and those just starting out to use these tools and materials to support and enhance their LEP advocacy services. If anyone has questions on how to use the tool or ideas for improvement, please email Claudia, at cjohnson@probono.net or Katie Bement, at kbement@mnlegalservices.org.

Pro Bono Net is committed to delivering online information systems and tools in multilingual formats. This ensures that those seeking information and referrals for legal problems have access to resources regardless of language or location. Pro Bono Net works with our partners to provide multilingual content in multiple ways throughout our platforms.  Over the past two years, Pro Bono Net has partnered with the LSI Foundation to offer translation service grants to legal aid and pro bono organizations.  This year, Pro Bono Net’s Language Access Initiative will make available translation services to our community totaling $175,000.

In 2010, Pro Bono Net, in partnership with Indiana Legal Services, updated the national online forms platform, LawHelp Interactive into Spanish, http://www.lawhelpinteractive.org.   In 2012, thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, Mandarin and Vietnamese versions were made available to assist naturalization legal services providers using LHI as part of the New Americans Campaign. A Korean LHI version is planned for 2014.

On the website side—in April of this year, LawHelp and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York released LawHelp En Espanol (www.lawhelp.org/espanol), which includes ten Multilingual Guides on basic topics related to finding legal assistance and basic American legal system information. One of the guides specifically provides information about language access rights. The ten cornerstone guides were created in English and Spanish under the http://www.lawhelp.org/espanol, and then translated into Vietnamese, Tagalog and Chinese through PBN’s in-kind translation program.