Bridging the language gap
By Jimmy Yan
Project and Information Officer
Access Pro Bono Society of BC
CELS Research Assistant
Bridging the language gap
In order to promote justice, students from the Legal Interpretation and Translation Certificate Program1 of Simon Fraser University are now helping clients who have difficulties to communicate in English access a free summary legal advisory service provided by lawyers from the Access Pro Bono Society of BC in downtown Vancouver.
Language skill, as an important social capital indicator, is critical for immigrants to communicate, learn, adapt and thrive well in the adopted country. Every year more than 500 practicing lawyers are providing free legal consultation to over 6,000 medium- to low-income clients at Access Pro Bono's summary legal advisory clinics across the province. Forty-five percent of the advisory clinic clients identified English as their second language. They were either immigrants or once came from immigrant families. When these clients were asked to self-assess their English proficiency level in a research project conducted in 2014, a quarter considered their English fluency was better than their mother language; 41% were bilingual; and one third acknowledged their English language skill was below the proficiency level of their mother tongue.
When there is a language barrier, equality and fairness may be severely compromised. In the correlational study of the same research project in 2014, we found bilingual clients were more likely to have completed university education but those clients with difficulties in communicating in English were more likely to include language and culture as major barriers on their way to fairness. Overall, inaccessible legal information was placed by 37% of the pro bono clients as the most prominent barrier to accessing justice. The Canadian court system and the situation of court delays, once very serious in 2012, was the second barrier identified by less than 25% of the clients.
To echo Simon Fraser University's strategy of engaging students, research and community, Access Pro Bono along with the Legal Interpretation and Translation Certificate Program took the initiative of helping Chinese clients access legal information and free legal advice through translation and interpretation students. Since June 2015, 75% of all inquiries for translation have been successfully matched with volunteer interpreters and over 50 Chinese clients have been assisted by students. The service and collaboration has been positively received by pro bono lawyers, clients, students and the Program. However, facing a growing number of immigrants and linguistic diversity in BC, the partnership is just a small step towards our cause of fostering a more equitable society for all British Columbians.