2 Interpreters and Access to Justice in Louisiana

Requiring LEP individuals to participate in civil or criminal proceedings without an interpreter is an affront to procedural and substantive due process. Without the ability to understand the proceedings, LEP individuals are unable to meaningfully advance their claims or adequately defend themselves despite the grave consequences they may face. As Louisiana’s immigrant population has grown,1 access to interpreters has become an increasingly important access-to-justice issue.2

The role of interpreters in Louisiana courts has been often misunderstood by judges, attorneys, and LEP litigants themselves. This misunderstanding is particularly problematic for the courts, which are charged with the knowledge necessary to understand interpreters’ relevance and importance. Although Louisiana, like the federal system, has classified interpreters within the evidentiary code as experts,3 the relative dearth of legislative guidance or judicial consensus concerning interpreter qualifications and appointment as well as payment for their services has unsurprisingly left their role a bit of a mystery.

The lack of understanding of the critical need for legal court interpreters and the attendant legal requirements related to their competency continues to be true to some extent across the legal field, but a great deal of progress has been made since the 2020 approval of a language access plan applicable to all Louisiana courts.4 The Plan embodies a “commitment to work with lower courts in the Louisiana Judiciary to phase-in a language access program that will provide language assistance services at no cost to limited English proficient individuals in all state court proceedings and operations.”5 Of greatest significance, this framework for the appointment of interpreters eschews a perception-based determination of the need for an interpreter and requires that courts—not the parties—pay for interpretation services. Additional information on interpreters in Louisiana courts is available through the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Office of Language Access webpage.6

  • 1As of 2022, 3.5% of the state population speaks Spanish at home while 3.4% speak French, including Louisiana Creole and Cajun. A total of 8.6% of the state’s residents speak a language other than English at home. Louisiana Population 2022, World Population Rev.
  • 2The National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) annually tracks language access in jurisdictions cross the country: “Courts function acceptably only when judges, witnesses, parties, and other people in the courtroom understand each other. When participants have limited proficiency in English, courts may need to provide interpreters, translate documents, and offer other language assistance. The [NCAJ] has worked to ensure that courts, lawyers, litigants, and members of the public understand the importance of adequate language access in the courts. NCAJ’s flagship Justice Index has identified 35 best practice policies that states should adopt to ensure language access in the justice system. Our data shows how every US state is doing against those benchmarks--and how their overall policy frameworks measure up against one another.” Language Access, Nat’l Cert. for Access to Just. (2022). Louisiana’s rating is found here. Justice Index, Nat’l Cert. for Access to Just. (2022), (select Louisiana on map).
  • 3Fed. R. Evid. 604 (explicit in language before 2011 stylistic amendment); La. C.E. art. 604.
  • 4Brian Wiggins, La. Sup. Ct., Language Access Plan in Louisiana Courts (2020), The Plan is the result of a Memorandum of Understanding entered into in 2019 between the Louisiana Supreme Court and the United States Department of Justice. Id. § I(A).
  • 5Id.; see also Brian P. Wiggins, What Lawyers Should Know about Louisiana’s New Language Access Plan, 69 La. B.J. 282, 283 (2021).
  • 6Office of Language Access, La. Sup. Ct.

Disclaimer: The articles in the Gillis Long Desk Manual do not contain any legal advice.