Frequently Asked Questions

Interpreters for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Litigants

How many people in the United States are limited English speakers?
Nearly 25 million people in this country do not speak English well enough to ensure that their civil rights under Title VI are protected.

What defines a person as Limited English Proficiency?
The Department of Justice defines LEP as "those individuals who have a limited ability to read, write, speak or understand English" from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin, and contemplates a close nexus between one's national origin and one's language. These individuals may be entitled language assistance with respect to a particular type of service or benefit.

Several states expand that definition to include those who are hard of hearing and/or deaf.

What are the relevant laws concerning language access for LEP individuals?
Federal laws particularly applicable to language access include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Title VI regulations, prohibiting discrimination based on national origin, and Executive Order 13166 issued in 2000. Many individual federal programs, states, and localities also have provisions requiring language services for LEP individuals.

What is Executive Order 13166?
An Executive Order is an order given by the President to federal agencies. The LEP Executive Order (Executive Order 13166) says that people who are LEP should have meaningful access to federally conducted and federally funded programs and activities.

On August 11, 2000, the President signed Executive Order 13166, "Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency." The Executive Order requires Federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them. It is expected that agency plans will provide for such meaningful access consistent with, and without unduly burdening, the fundamental mission of the agency. The Executive Order also requires that the Federal agencies work to ensure that recipients of Federal financial assistance provide meaningful access to their LEP applicants and beneficiaries.

FCS has initiated an aggressive program of intra- and inter-agency consultations and actively solicits comments and suggestions from representatives of recipient and LEP individuals on how to identify and address the needs of LEP individuals under Executive Order 13166 in an effective and cost-effective manner.

What is a recipient of federal financial assistance?
Federal financial assistance includes grants, training, use of equipment, donations of surplus property, and other assistance. Subrecipients are also covered, when federal funds are passed from one recipient to a subrecipient. Recipients of federal funds range from state and local agencies, to nonprofits and other organizations. A list of the types of recipients and the agencies funding them can be found at Executive Order 12250 Coordination of Grant-Related Civil Rights Statutes.

Title VI covers a recipient's entire program or activity. This means all parts of a recipient's operations are covered. This is true even if only one part of the recipient receives the federal assistance. Example: DOJ provides assistance to a state department of corrections to improve a particular prison facility. All of the operations of the entire state department of corrections--not just the particular prison--are covered. More information on Title VI, generally, can be found at Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 42 U.S.C. ¤ 2000d et seq.

What is a federally conducted activity?
All federal agencies subject to Executive Order 13166 must design and implement a federally conducted plan to ensure access for LEP individuals to all of its federally conducted programs and activities (basically, everything that it does). For instance, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has a plan for ensuring meaningful access to its programs and activities for LEP persons. Other agencies and parts of agencies must do the same.

Who enforces the LEP rules?
Most federal agencies have an office that is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. To the extent that a recipient's actions are inconsistent with their obligations under Title VI, then such agencies will take the necessary corrective steps.

What is the difference between a bilingual staff person and an interpreter or translator?
People who are completely bilingual are fluent in two languages. They are able to conduct the business of the workplace in either of those languages. Bilingual staff can assist in meeting the Title VI and Executive Order 13166 requirement for federally conducted and federally assisted programs and activities to ensure meaningful access to LEP persons. Interpretation and translation require additional specific skills in addition to being fully fluent in two or more languages.

Interpretation Interpretation involves the immediate communication of meaning from one language (the source language) into another (the target language). An interpreter conveys meaning orally, while a translator conveys meaning from written text to written text. As a result, interpretation requires skills different from those needed for translation.

Interpreting is a complex task that combines several abilities beyond language competence in order to enable delivery of an effective professional interpretation in a given setting. Consequently, extreme care must be exercised in hiring interpreters and interpreting duties should be assigned to individuals within their performance level. Command of at least two languages is prerequisite to any interpreting task. The interpreter must be able to (1) comprehend two languages as spoken and written (if the language has a script), (2) speak both of these languages, and (3) choose an expression in the target language that fully conveys and best matches the meaning of the source language. From the standpoint of the user, a successful interpretation is one that faithfully and accurately conveys the meaning of the source language orally, reflecting the style, register, and cultural context of the source message, without omissions, additions or embellishments on the part of the interpreter.

Professional interpreters and translators are subject to specific codes of conduct and should be well-trained in the skills, ethics, and subject-matter language. Those utilizing the services of interpreters and translators should request information about certification, assessments taken, qualifications, experience, and training. Quality of interpretation should be a focus of concern for all recipients.

Many court systems have adopted assessments, certification or other qualification procedures to ensure quality, so when hiring an interpreter, whether for courtroom or other assignments, such competency measures should be taken into consideration. Interpreters can be physically present, or, if appropriate, may appear via videoconferencing or telephonically. When videoconferencing or telephonic interpretation are used, options include connecting directly to a specific professional interpreter with known qualifications, or opting to use a company providing telephonic interpretation services, preferably one with quality control safeguards in place. In many circumstances, using a professional interpreter or translator will be both necessary and preferred. However, if bilingual staff are asked to interpret or translate, they should be qualified to do so. Assessment of ability, training on interpreter ethics and standards, and clear policies that delineate appropriate use of bilingual staff, staff or contract interpreters and translators, will help ensure quality and effective use of resources.

What impact does Title VI have on court interpretation?
Many state and local court systems receive direct or indirect financial assistance from the Department of Justice or another federal agency. Recipients of such federal financial assistance must comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. ¤ 2000, et seq, and its implementing regulations, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance.

Under Executive Order 13166, reprinted at 65 FR 50121 (August 16, 2000), each federal agency that extends federal financial assistance is required to issue guidance explaining the obligations of their recipients to ensure meaningful access by LEP persons to their federally assisted programs and activities.

On June 18, 2002, the Department of Justice issued final guidance to its recipients regarding the requirement to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to LEP individuals. (67 FR 41455). The DOJ Guidance outlines four factors that should be considered to determine when language assistance might be required to ensure such meaningful access, and it identifies cost effective measures to address those language needs. Those factors are: 1. The number or proportion of LEP persons in the eligible service population; 2. The frequency with which LEP individuals come into contact with the program; 3. The importance of the program or activity to the LEP person (including the consequences of lack of language services or inadequate interpretation/translation); and 4. The resources available to the recipient and the costs.

For DOJ recipient programs and activities, this is particularly true in a courtroom, administrative hearing, pre- and post-trial proceedings, situations in which health, safety, or access to important benefits and services are at stake, or when credibility and accuracy are important to protect an individual's rights and access to important services (67 FR 41455, 41462). Charging LEP persons for interpreter costs or failing to provide interpreters can implicate national origin discrimination concerns.

At a minimum, every effort should be taken to ensure competent interpretation for LEP individuals during all hearings, trials, and motions during which the LEP individual must and/or may be present. (67 FR 41455, 41471) Examples of Title VI compliance can be found in states in which courts are providing interpretation free of cost to all LEP persons encountering the system (including parents of non-LEP minors), whether it be in a criminal or civil setting, and in important interactions with court personnel, as well as providing translations of vital documents and signage. Many states are moving in this direction. The Federal Coordination and Compliance Section (FCS) of the Civil Rights Division works with court systems and consortia to provide outreach on compliance and best practices to all state courts, and to provide technical assistance. FCS also conducts investigations into allegations of national origin discrimination in courts.