by Sahil Chopra
Language is the medium by which we interact with culture, express our ideas, and maintain our rights. Without “language access”, i.e. the ability to convey one’s thoughts effectively and understand others correctly, one is disempowered altogether. At a societal level this can lead to systemic inequality, whether intentional or not; and one of the places where this is most evident is the court system.
This Autumn, I’m one of the 25 students enrolled in Stanford’s Design for Language Access, a course initiated by the Stanford Legal Design Lab to investigate and advise how state courts may better serve Californians entering the legal system, who either do not speak or have limited proficiency with English.
As the Judicial Council of California’s Strategic Plan for Language Access in California Court details, 40% of Californians speak non-English languages at home, 200+ languages and dialects are spoken by Californians as a whole, and approximately ~20% of Californians have English language limitations. Going to court is always a stressful experience, as the impetus to seek court help is often a difficult circumstance itself. Coupling the weight of the incident with the inability to communicate and properly resolve your issue only magnifies the stress incurred by the individual. Moreover, it may be difficult to properly resolve one’s legal issue and receive the proper access to one’s legal rights if they are unable to effectively communicate with lawyers, clerks, and judges within the judicial branch. Thus, “language access”, as the Judicial Council of California titles it, is a critical issue that we must address in order to ensure and fair and equitable legal proceedings.
Personally, I have no prior background with judicial systems. I’m a computer scientist by training, completing my BS/MS with concentrations in Artificial Intelligence and Human Computer Interaction – focusing a bulk of my research in cognitive science and natural language processing. But that’s where the diverse experience of my classmates come in. We are lawyers, teachers, designers, business students, and computer scientists — all hoping to better understand this space and offer a different perspective.
Over the next nine weeks, we shall apply the fundamental principles of “Design Thinking” to first observe and interview individuals going through the court system and then hypothesize, prototype, and test potential strategies that may provide better language access to millions of Californians. Our class will culminate in a list of possible solutions and implementations which the California courts may consider as potential avenues by which the state can improve language access at scale. Additionally, we shall be evaluating a pilot program that California courts is running in San Jose, where tablets with Google Translate are being employed to help ease communication between non-English-speaking clients and English-speaking court staff.
Stay tuned to learn more week-by-week about our journey to help provide better language access to Californians!