Low English Proficiency and Access to Justice

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

As most attorneys learned throughout their law school education, legalese can be a language in and of itself. Often, English proficient clients struggle to understand contracts and legal notices. While the law has progressed throughout history to minimize legalese in contracts and increase the use of plain English language, the need for an attorney to help interpret legal notices and agreements is still encouraged in most, if not all, instances. The importance of comprehension of the legal implications of court documents, notices or contracts is elevated when the recipient or client has low English proficiency.

Imagine coming home to a notice taped to your front door. You have lived in this home for many years under a month-to-month contract and you have no expectation that your right to occupy that home is at risk of termination. You take the notice from the front door and attempt to read a notice that is titled “Notice to Quit.” However, you don’t read English because despite your many years in the US, English is not your first language and while you can hold a simple conversation in this foreign language, your language proficiency in English is low. The implications of this scenario can be significant and the initial response is often panic and confusion.


Colorado is home to over 1.2 million residents that identify as Hispanic/Latinx. This population is the second largest ethnic/racial group in the state of Colorado making up 21.9% of the population, with some counties having more than half of its residents identifying as Hispanic/Latinx. Yet the availability of Spanish-speaking attorneys and Spanish translated court documents and forms are not meeting the needs of Colorado’s Spanish speaking population.


The Spanish-speaking population’s access to justice is being frustrated by the scarcity of Spanish-speaking attorneys and the need for additional translation of court documents, pleadings, and notices. As a Spanish-speaking attorney, I served the Spanish-speaking community of Summit County for the last three and a half years. In my short stint in private practice in our beautiful Rocky Mountains, I quickly learned the struggles of the Spanish-speaking population and the significant gap to fit their needs. During my time in Summit, I filled the need for landlord-tenant representation to the Spanish-speaking population. Upon my move back to the front-range, Summit was left with only two Spanish-speaking attorneys with specialized practices in criminal law and immigration, despite the fact that 17.8% of the population identifies as Hispanic/Latinx. Summit is just one example of the scarcity of availability for legal counsel for Spanish-speaking individuals.


The COVID pandemic further highlighted the need and increased the urgency for adequate legal services for the Spanish-speaking population. Low English proficiency has allowed predatory individuals to take advantage of individuals that were in desperate situations and that were struggling to understand the ever-changing governmental and health orders that offered them protections from late fees and eviction. Last spring and summer, I often received calls from prospective clients struggling to pay rent and being threatened by landlords that refused to establish payment plans and continued to charge late fees despite the Governor’s Executive Orders. The Spanish-speaking population also became a target of predatory and fraud practices by others who sought to take advantage of their desperation to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

Today marks the end of Hispanic Heritage month. Hispanic Heritage month began as a weeklong celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon John who proclaimed,

“It is with special pride that I call the attention of my fellow citizens to the great contribution to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent—not only in the fields of culture, business, and science, but also through their valor in battle.
Several of our States and many of our cities proudly bear Hispanic names and continue Hispanic traditions that enrich our national life.
[…]
The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land. This heritage is ours.

Since this proclamation, the Hispanic/Latinx population has continued to grow and contribute to American culture. As we continue our work toward a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society, we must endeavor to serve our Spanish-speaking population where they are, which often times is in our rural counties. I hope to encourage up and coming Spanish-speaking law students or those seeking to change practice areas to think about the needs of the Spanish-speaking community in our more rural communities.


In recent discussions with the Spanish-Speaking Lawyer’s Committee, we have discussed initiatives to increase the Spanish-speaking attorney pipeline in practice areas other than immigration and to complete the important task of translating the self-help forms available through the Colorado Judicial Branch website. It is my hope that these initiatives will help redress the impediments to justice for our Hispanic/Latinx brothers and sisters.

 

Carime Lee is a Staff Attorney with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. Carime was born in Colombia, S.A. and emigrated to the United States at the age of 6. She is one of the Co-Chairs of the Colorado Women's Bar Association Publication Committee. Carime is a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and a founding board member of Mountain Dreamers, a local immigrants rights non-profit organization in Summit County. She is passionate about serving the immigrant and Spanish-speaking community.





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